Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Book Review: "Arts & Entertainments" by Christopher Beha

"Handsome Eddie" Hartley dreamed of being a successful actor. After being noticed in a small play, he started to get parts in commercials and small roles on television. But despite his good looks and his desire to succeed, his career never took off. Now, at age 33, he teaches acting to students at the Catholic boys' school he used to attend, and despite the fact that he and his wife Susan are struggling to have a child—something that is taking both a financial and an emotional toll—he's happy with his life, even if it didn't turn out like he had hoped.

Well, sort of. You see, Martha Martin, star of the wildly popular television show Dr. Drake and a perennial fixture in the entertainment media, used to be Eddie's girlfriend. Eddie thought he and Martha had something special, but when her career took off, she quickly left him behind, never to speak to him again. And although Eddie has moved on with his life, he can't help but feel a little envious, a little bitter each time he sees Martha in the media.

Desperate for the money to support another fertility treatment, Eddie reluctantly jumps at the idea to sell an old sex tape that he and Martha made back in the day. He figures that no publicity is bad publicity, so if the attention around the leaked sex tape gives him the chance to get back into the spotlight, he won't complain. But Eddie drastically underestimates the effect the tape will have on his life, his marriage, his career, his relationships with others, and his dream of finally becoming an actor. He won't ever have control of his life ever again.

Christopher Beha's Arts & Entertainments is a satirical look at our obsession with celebrities and reality television, and just how manipulated reality really is. While the book strives to be outlandish, and is in some ways, it's scary how some of the more ridiculous things the book pokes fun of have actually happened on television—or probably will soon. This book had particular relevance for me as I watched a former Bachelorette have an ultrasound on television last night to determine the sex of her unborn child (despite the fact that magazines had already reported she and her husband knew the sex of their baby in advance).

This is a funny, entertaining book, and a very quick read. It all seems fairly familiar, especially if you have any knowledge of our celebrity-obsessed culture, but that doesn't detract from its appeal. The only thing I couldn't quite figure out was whether Beha was saying that everyone really wants to be a star of their own reality television series, or if his characters all were ultimately as shallow as they appeared.

I wasn't sure what to expect of this book, but I enjoyed it. It's a fun summer read—and the perfect complement to the magazines you might pick up at the newsstand or the grocery store. (But it's a book, so you can feel slightly superior.)

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Book Review: "What It Was Like" by Peter Seth

Full disclosure: I received an advance readers copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

"It's really a very simple story. What happened was this: I met this girl and did a very stupid thing. I fell in love. Hard. I know that to some people that makes me an idiot and a loser. What can I say? They're right. I did some extremely foolish things; I'm the first to say it. And they've left me in jail and alone."

The narrator of Peter Seth's What It Was Like grew up in the late 1960s on Long Island, and seemed to have everything. He was smart, planning to attend Columbia University, and the summer before college took a job as a counselor at Camp Mooncliff, a summer camp in upstate New York. He took the job to earn some money before college, and figured it would be a relatively easy job, better than staying home and working for a rich relative or in the furniture store where his father worked.

What he didn't plan for was meeting the gorgeous yet troubled Rachel Prince, a CIT (counselor-in-training) at the camp who was related to the camp's owners. Over her years at Mooncliff Rachel had developed quite a reputation for teasing and using boys, then discarding them when she got bored. Despite many of his fellow counselors' warnings, he falls hard for her, and she for him. It isn't long before the two are breaking as many camp rules as possible in order to see other as frequently as they can, which doesn't sit well with those in charge, and they do all they can to keep the two apart.

Although his feelings for Rachel are quite strong, he is somewhat put off by the mania of her emotions. With her parents in the midst of an ugly divorce, and her desire not to go to college directly after she graduates from high school, Rachel has tremendous anxiety about her relationship with her mother and her new live-in boyfriend, and worries whether they will try to keep Rachel from seeing the love of her life after the summer ends.

What It Was Like is the story of the intensity of young love that borders on obsession, and how we often suspend logic and don't heed the warnings and advice of others when we're in the midst of that type of love. As we learn early on in the book, the narrator's feelings for Rachel end up embroiling him in trouble he never planned on, and severely alters the course of his life. This book is apparently "the true story" the narrator writes while in prison, as he attests that the real story was never disclosed at his trial.

I thought at first this book had tremendous promise. I like the way Peter Seth writes and I particularly liked the depth he gave to the narrator, despite the fact you wanted to shake some sense into him. He hit the nail on the head in capturing the summer camp experience—many of the events and activities he talked about actually happened at the summer camp I attended when I was younger.

As the book unfolded, I became more frustrated. The story became less and less probable, and while I believe that intense love makes us blind and causes us to act irrationally, I just couldn't believe the sequence of events that occurred. I also thought that the book went on a bit too long—while I understand it was to set up what transpired later, there were far too many instances of Rachel acting emotionally and the narrator mooning over her, and since Rachel didn't seem to be that appealing of a character (apart from her beauty), I found the story dragged.

There's an old saying that "Love makes such fools of us." What It Was Like clearly demonstrates the lengths to which we will go for the ones we love, no matter how it may destroy our own lives in the process.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Book Review: "Wayfaring Stranger" by James Lee Burke

Full disclosure: I received an advance readers copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

James Lee Burke is one of my favorite authors of all-time. Over the last 25 years or so, I've read everything he has written, and really marveled at his ability to tell stories. His writing style is one of the most poetic and evocative I've ever seen; no one can set a scene or describe a person quite like Burke.

With Wayfaring Stranger, Burke departs from the usual characters he's written about lately, most notably Louisiana police detective Dave Robicheaux, to tell the story of Weldon Holland. When we first meet Weldon in the 1930s, he is fatherless, being raised by his curmudgeonly grandfather. At 16, he has several chance encounters with Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, as they are hiding out following one of their many bank robberies. Weldon is entranced by the beautiful Bonnie, yet he knows intuitively that the group are criminals, and their last encounter leads to Weldon firing a gun at their car as it drives away. This experience both shapes his view of criminals and sets up an interesting standard of women in his mind.

Years later, Weldon finds himself in the army during World War II, and is one of a handful of survivors of the Battle of the Bulge. He and a fellow soldier, Hershel Pine, whose life Weldon saves, come upon an abandoned concentration camp, where they wind up saving the life of Rosita Lowenstein, who had been captured when her Communist father and her family were arrested. Weldon is immediately besotted with Rosita, who is a firebrand more interested in changing the world than settling down, yet Weldon pursues her again once the two are separated.

Returning to Texas, Hershel makes good on his gratitude toward Weldon by forging a partnership in the fledgling oil industry. Hershel has envisioned using German technology to weld oil pipeline, which makes it strong so it will not split. Yet as they begin to achieve immense success, they are dogged by corrupt businessmen and thieves who want to seize their business, and will stop at nothing—including using information about their wives—to destroy them. But their strong sense of right and wrong keeps them fighting, with positive and negative results.

Burke's writing ability is on fine display in this book, and many times I was struck by his use of imagery and his descriptions of characters, which made them tremendously vivid. Yet while many of the reviews I've read of this book claim that Wayfaring Stranger is a tremendous departure for Burke, I think it is only in that it's about different characters than his other books. I felt that in many ways, Weldon was very similar to Dave Robicheaux, in his steadfast need to right wrongs—even if it means doing wrong in the process—his long-suffering nature, and his fierce loyalty to those he cares about. And many of the villains that Weldon and Hershel encounter seem familiar as well.

I enjoyed this book, but not as much as many of Burke's others, yet many of the reviews I've seen say this may be his finest book to date. Whether you agree with me or not, if you're a fan of excellent storytelling, with a particular emphasis on the seamier side of human nature, I'd encourage you to pick up one of James Lee Burke's books, and hopefully you'll become as much an admirer of his as I am.

Book Review: "World of Trouble" by Ben H. Winters

I both love and hate reading a series of books. I love the familiarity of the characters and the settings, as it's kind of like spending time with old friends. The downside, of course, is that a series eventually comes to an end, and while sometimes the conclusion is satisfying (although you don't want it to end), many times it's disappointing.

With that in mind, I approached World of Trouble, the final novel in Ben H. Winters' terrifically creative and emotionally powerful Last Policeman series, with a great deal of trepidation. I so enjoyed the first two books and absolutely loved the world he created, so I hoped that I wouldn't be disappointed with how he concluded the series. (Spoiler alert: I wasn't.)

"I was a detective for only three months, promoted out of nowhere and dismissed just as abruptly when the CPD was absorbed by the Department of Justice, and so I never received the higher-level training I would have in the normal run of a career."

Henry "Hank" Palace was a police detective in New Hampshire. He was tremendously dedicated to his job. The problem was, scientists discovered that a giant asteroid was on a collision course with Earth, thereby ending the world as we know it, so his job was eliminated, as police departments all across the world were phased out. But Hank couldn't turn off his instincts to uncover the truth about crimes he is aware of, or his need to protect his sister, Nico, who has fallen in with a group of people convinced there's an Armageddon-esque way to destroy the asteroid before it destroys Earth, but the government has covered it up.

When World of Trouble begins, Hank is holed up in New England in a well-stocked safe house with a number of his former law enforcement colleagues, getting ready for the end of the world. But he desperately wants to find Nico before the asteroid hits, and so he finds himself traveling to Ohio with his sidekick, Cortez, and Houdini, the dog he somehow adopted. Along the way, they encounter cities taken over by violence, cities which seem empty because their residents have gone into hiding, and cities which truly are abandoned. And Hank can never turn off his protective instincts, as many of the people he tries to help remind him of Nico.

Their arrival in the small Ohio town leads them to several startling and disturbing discoveries. And as the amount of time for Hank to find Nico before the asteroid hits dwindles, Hank is desperate to figure out where she has gone and what led her there, but more than that, he wants to truly understand whether the solution she so fervently believed in was as far-fetched as it sounds, or if this could be reality. But the truth is far more disturbing—and dangerous—than he imagined.

I don't know how I imagined Winters would conclude this series, but I definitely thought that World of Trouble was a fitting, well-done conclusion, which remained true to Hank's character and the situations that Winters created for him. As you might imagine of a book set in the last few days before the world is expected to end, this was tremendously moving and poignant, and very well-written. There were plenty of twists and turns to keep my interest, but as with the other books in the series, I also found the whole idea very thought-provoking, as I wondered how I would handle knowing that the world was expected to end in a matter of days.

I would definitely recommend you pick up this series, and read it in order. You'll be amazed at Winters' creativity and his storytelling ability, but you'll also find yourself fully immersed in this world, and hooked on these characters.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Book Review: "Everything I Never Told You" by Celeste Ng

"Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet."

The Lydia in question is Lydia Lee, a teenager growing up in the Ohio suburbs of the late 1970s. A hybrid of her parents, with her Chinese father's black hair and her American mother's blue eyes, she has always stood out—particularly when all she wanted to do was fit in. Despite being the middle child, she is the one bearing all of her parents' expectations—her mother's desires that Lydia pursue the medical career she wasn't able to, and her father's wishes that she be popular, affable, and charming.

Lydia's death lays bare fissures between and among each remaining member of her family. Her parents' relationship wearies under the strain of grief, regrets, and the pressure of being an ethnically mixed couple in a world not quite ready to accept them. Lydia's older brother, Nath (short for Nathan), is desperate for his parents to recognize his achievements, yet they leave him to chart his own course, and he wonders if his attitude toward his sister in the last few days of her life had any impact on her death. And Hannah, the youngest daughter, all but forgotten in the haze, but she sees and notices more than anyone realizes, and is desperate to share her love and her thoughts with her family.

This is a sad book even without Lydia's death at its core. This is a book about all of the secrets, resentments, fears, hopes, regrets, and wishes we leave unsaid, and the toll they all take on our lives. It's amazing to realize how giving voice to one feeling, one irritation, one fear can truly change the course of a life, but all too often, they remain unspoken. It's also a book about the need to be the person you want to be, because if you allow someone else to mold you into something you don't want to be, you will lose yourself.

Everything I Never Told You is beautifully written and poignant, but because of all of the things left unspoken, it was a little frustrating at times, much like real life. The book spans through the early days of Lydia's parents' relationship to the aftermath of her death, and points to future events as well. All I kept thinking as I read the book was, "How sad." This is a tragic book, but not a maudlin one, and Celeste Ng's writing is poetically lyrical.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Book Review: "Landline" by Rainbow Rowell

Last year, Rainbow Rowell catapulted onto my list of favorite authors with two of her books, Eleanor & Park and Fangirl. I just loved her writing and the characters she created, and both books made my year-end list of the best books I read. So needless to say, when I saw she had a new book coming out this year, I couldn't wait to get my hands on it, and I waited to see how it would be different.

Georgie McCool is a successful sitcom writer, a job she has dreamed of for as long as she can remember. She and her best friend, Seth, have been a comedy team since college, and they have risen through the ranks of the comedy writing world. They're finally working on a commercially successful show, despite the fact that they hate the comedian who is the star, and they dream of someday having their own show, the show they've thought of and planned for since they first met.

Georgie and her husband, Neal, have dated since college. While they both truly love each other, and the family they have created with their two young daughters, they don't always get along. But what married couple does, right? Maybe Georgie doesn't try as hard as she could, maybe she's not as fully involved in taking care of the girls as Neal is. And maybe Neal resents Georgie's weird symbiotic relationship with Seth all these years. But every couple has issues.

"How does anyone ever know whether love is enough? It's an idiotic question. Like, if you fall in love, if you're that lucky, who are you to even ask whether it's enough to make you happy?"

One day, Georgie and Seth finally get the news they've been hoping for—their dream show has been given the go-ahead by a network executive to be a mid-season replacement. They have just a few days to come up with the first several scripts. The only problem is, it's two days before Christmas, and Neal, Georgie, and the girls have plans to go to Nebraska to visit Neal's mother. But Georgie says she has to stay in Los Angeles, as she can't give up this dream.

Georgie is reeling from Neal's departure, and her fears that this may be the crushing blow to their marriage. One night she finds a way to communicate with college-aged Neal, at a moment when their relationship was at a crossroads. Although she fears continuing to speak with "past Neal" might ruin something in the future (a la Back to the Future), she can't tear herself away, and at the same time, she can't help but wonder whether there's some cosmic opportunity to try and fix something in their relationship—and whether she should stop it this time before it took off.

I read Landline in a day. While I didn't love it as much as Rowell's earlier books, I really, really enjoyed it. As I've said numerous times before, I'm sappy enough to enjoy stories of making love work through difficult times, and I guess I've read enough books with gimmicks like these that I didn't have any trouble with this plot twist either. In fact, I imagined what I would do if I had the same opportunity Georgie did.

If I have any criticism of Landline, it's that the characters are all fairly unsympathetic. From time to time, I wanted to shake nearly every one of them to say what they were thinking, to prevent something major from happening, although I know that's pretty much like life is. But I just love the way Rowell writes, so even with cranky characters, she has the ability to charm me and keep me reading. Can't wait for her next one!!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Book Review: "The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories" by Marina Keegan

I randomly stumbled upon this book, and I'm so glad I did.

Marina Keegan was an aspiring writer who graduated magna cum laude from Yale in May 2012. She was a talented go-getter with a bright future ahead of her, one which included a job at the New Yorker and a play in production. Five days after her graduation, she was killed in a car accident while on her way to visit family.

An essay called "The Opposite of Loneliness," which she wrote for the Yale Daily News, recounted the excitement she felt about graduating from college and heading into her future, yet it was also tinged with the melancholy of the simpler college days, when minor problems seemed so insurmountable. After her death, the essay went viral, and it led to the publication of this book by the same name, a collection of short stories and essays she wrote.

After reading this book, I can say unequivocally that Marina Keegan was an exceptionally talented writer, one whose fiction was imbued with sensitivity and rich characters, and whose essays were insightful, sometimes humorous and sometimes quirky. The essays in which she referred to the thoughts and fears she had about her own future were particularly poignant, because she had no idea just how short her future would sadly be. It's difficult, of course, to separate the emotional weight of her work from the tragedy of her death, but I still believe this pieces would be powerful had she not died.

I particularly enjoyed a number of her short stories, particularly "Cold Pastoral," in which a college student deals with the death of a fellow student she was dating, but isn't really sure what their relationship meant to her; "Winter Break," which told of the difficulties a college student has reconciling her own romantic relationship with the difficulties her parents are having; "Reading Aloud," in which an aging woman reads to a younger blind man and finds unusual emotional catharsis; the perils of returning to your hometown after your life hasn't gone the way you planned, in "Hail, Full of Grace"; and "Challenger Deep," the story of the crew on a doomed submarine.

Of her essays, the ones I enjoyed the most were "Stability in Motion," in which Keegan recounted her relationship with her first car, a gift from her grandmother, and "Against the Grain," which told of her challenges living with Celiac disease, and her mother's fiercely protective nature where those issues were concerned.

Keegan's writing is layered, at times both poetic and humorous, and quite beautiful. The literary world lost a star it never got the chance to have, but luckily her work was left behind for us to savor, and wonder what might have been.