About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Monday, July 4, 2011

#56: Untold Story

Untold Story, by Monica Ali (New York: Scribner, 2011).

"When Princess Diana died in Paris's Alma tunnel, she was thirty-seven years old. Had she lived, she would turn fifty on July 1, 2011. Who would the beloved icon be if she were alive today? What would she be doing? And where? ... Monica Ali has imagined a different fate for Diana in her spectacular new novel, Untold Story.

"Diana's life and marriage were both fairy tale and nightmare rolled into one. Adored by millions, she suffered rejection, heartbreak, and betrayal. Surrounded by glamour and glitz and the constant attention of the press, she fought to carve a meaningful role for herself in helping the needy and dispossessed. The contradiction and pressures of her situation fueled her increasingly reckless behavior, but her stature and her connection with her public never ceased to grow. If Diana had lived, would she ever have found peace and happiness, or would the curse of fame always have been too great?

"Fast forward a decade after the (averted) Paris tragedy, and an Englishwoman named Lydia is living in a small, nondescript town somewhere in the American Midwest. She has a circle of friends: one owns a dress shop; one is a realtor; another is a frenzied stay-at-home mom. Lydia works at an animal shelter and swims a lot. Her lover, who adores her, feels she won't let him know her. Who is she?

"Untold Story is about the cost of celebrity, the meaning of identity, and the possibility -- or impossibility -- of reinventing a life. Ali's fictional princess is beautiful, intrepid, and resourceful and has established a fragile peace. And then the past threatens to destroy her new life. Ali has created a riveting new novel inspired by the cultural icon she calls 'a gorgeous bundle of trouble.'"

Opening Lines:
"Some stories are never meant to be told. Some can only be told as fairy tales."

My Take:
This was a happy accident. Not a day after I'd first heard about this book in an NPR review -- I hadn't even gotten around to adding it to my "wanna read" list -- I went to the library and found three brand-new copies on the new fiction list. All three are checked out now, one to me -- so I guess I'm glad I got it when I did. We'll see if it's worth the bother.

(more than a month later) I've said this before, but in a word (or a grunt), meh. Intriguing concept in theory, but pretty darned boring in its implementation. Perhaps the whole point of the book is that Lydia's got the lid clamped down on her infamous past so tightly that no one can get close enough to see the person she's trying to be and life she's trying to have now, but unfortunately ... the reader really can't get close enough to care about her, either. Unless you're one of those folks -- I know there are or were scads out there, though I don't know any -- who really had a Princess Diana fetish, don't waste your time.

#55: Scarlet Nights

Scarlet Nights, by Jude Deveraux (New York: Atria Books, 2010).

"Engaged to the charming and seductive Greg Anders, Sara Shaw is happily anticipating her wedding in Edilean, Virginia. The date has been set, the flowers ordered, even her heirloom dress is ready. But just three weeks before the wedding, Greg gets a telephone call during the night and leaves without explanation. Two days later, a man climbs up through a trapdoor in the floor of Sara's apartment, claiming that he is the brother of her best friend and that he's moving in.

"While Mike Newland is indeed telling the truth about his identity, his reason for being there reaches far deeper. He's an undercover detective, and his assignment is to use Sara to track down a woman who is one of the most notorious criminals in the United States -- and also happens to be the mother of the man Sara plans to marry.

"Mike thinks the job will be easy -- if he can figure out how to make a 'good' girl like Sara trust him, that is. But Mike has no idea what this mission has in store for him. He's worked hard to keep private his connections to Edilean, which date back to his grandmother's time there in 1941. But as Mike and Sara get to know each other, he can't help but share secrets about himself that he's told no one else. And in return, Sara opens up to Mike about things she could never reveal to Greg. As the pair work together to solve two mysteries, their growing love begins to heal each of them in ways they never could have imagined."

Opening Line:
"'I think we've found her,' Captain Erickson said.

My Take:
Yes, this is shaping up to be as lightweight and silly as it sounds -- perfect for a holiday weekend beach read, which is when and why I checked it out.

Well, it was about what I expected. Long on action and purple prose, short on believability and character depth. I've passed less enjoyable afternoons but this certainly isn't a particularly interesting or memorable book. Next.

Friday, July 1, 2011

#54: Red Hook Road

Red Hook Road, by Ayelet Waldman (New York: Doubleday, 2010).

"Becca Copaken and John Tetherly are young and in love, and the future looks as bright as the day of their marriage. Becca's family is well-to-do and summers in Red Hook, Maine, where John's mother, Jane, runs a housecleaning service for clients like the Copakens. The only thing that binds the two families is the love the elated couple share, but it's enough to bring them together for the occasion.

"Until the unthinkable happens: Becca and John's limousine collides with another vehicle mere minutes after the wedding, killing them instantly. Joy gives way to grief, and the rifts between Becca's mother, Iris, and Jane grow, from the funeral arrangements to Iris's strong-willed interest in the musical career of Jane's niece to a new romance that buds between the surviving children, Ruthie and Matt. Time's healing powers prove elusive for Iris and Jane. Iris's thirty-year marriage disintegrates, while Jane's bitterness threatens to ruin her relationship with Matt. Only when a powerful, blinding storm hits Red Hook do the families begin to see what really matters most."

Opening Line:
"The flower girl had lost her basket of rose petals and could not bear to have the photograph taken without it."

My Take:
I had a few rough days this week -- let's say I was definitely in the valleys of the unemployment roller coaster -- and went to the library looking to be entertained and distracted. Don't worry if that doesn't automatically scream "couple killed on their wedding day" to you; Mr. Hazelthyme didn't get it, either. It's about catharsis, people ... that, and reading something that doesn't take too long or make you work too hard to become engaged.

So far (I'm on page 130), this fits the bill: hard to put down, but beautifully written with an excellent eye for detail and nuance. Given the subject matter, that does indeed mean it's painfully sad in parts. One example: the following early passage, where John's brother Matt reflects on whether it's more painful when others mention his late brother, or when they don't speak about him:
"At the sound of their names, Ruthie twitched. For the first couple of weeks Matt had felt the same way. Every mention of the names of the dead seemed to light a small hot fire inside him. Then one day a few weeks back he woke up and found that, suddenly, the opposite was true: it was the minutes, the hours, the entire days that went by without someone mentioning John that hurt Matt the most. He had tried to talk about John to his mother, but that went nowhere. So he had started hanging out with John's friends. Every evening he would head over to the Neptune, and stake out a stool in the middle of the bar. As people trickled in they would stop and pass a few minutes with him. Some offered no more than their condolences, some tried to buy him a beer. And that was okay. But what Matt was waiting for were the stories. About the birch bark canoe with swept-up gunwale and a squared bow that John and a friend had built for a middle school project on the Passamaquoddy tribe. About how one hunting season, when another buddy was laid up with a broken leg, John had filled his freezer with venison steaks, because he knew the guy relied on his yearly buck to feed his family. They'd retell John's jokes -- Matt must have heard the one about the robber in the sperm bank a dozen times. They'd remind one another about practical jokes John had played on them. The guys, as sad as they were, as much as they missed their friend, always ended up laughing, especially once they'd had a few. And if Matt rarely laughed out loud with them, as long as he was sitting on that barstool he felt okay. He felt like he was close to his brother. He was dreading the end of the summer, dreading the prospect of going back to college and being surrounded by people who had never known John, who had never laughed at his jokes or been the beneficiaries of his unsolicited largesse, who didn't know or care that he was dead."
(afterwards) Excellent book. It follows the surviving Copaken and Tetherly family members through the five summers that follow John and Becca's deaths, trying to move on with their lives knowing all the while there really is no such thing -- no going back to the way it was Before. As the summary suggests, Ruthie and Matt find comfort in each other, and struggle with the usual twenty-something "who am I and what am I doing with my life?" questions beneath the weight of their losses. Ruthie, who can't bear to return to London and the Fulbright her mother's always dreamed of/ expected for her, finds unexpected satisfaction working in the tiny Red Hook library ... while Matt finds a disappointing lack of the same as he endeavors to finish the work John started restoring an old wooden schooner. Jane is so committed to her stiff-upper-lipped New England stoicism that she can't even bear to talk about John, which strains her relationship with her surviving son. Iris channels her pain into overseeing the education of Samantha, Jane's niece and ward, who had been Becca and John's nine-year-old flower girl, and turns out to be a musical prodigy who's talent's gone unrecognized by her family to date. Daniel, Iris's husband and Becca and Ruthie's father, finds an outlet in the training and boxing he'd enjoyed as a young man, even if this opens a near-fatal rift in his marriage to Iris. Under the tutelage of Iris's father, renowned violinist Mr. Kimmelbrod, Samantha blossoms as a violinist, and teaching her gives him something positive to cling to even as his body grows increasingly frail. The ending is a little too dramatic for my tastes (thought it would probably translate quite well to film, and seeing this happen wouldn't surprise me much), but overall, this one's a keeper and a recommend-to-others book.