Sunday, March 29, 2009

Still Alice

Book No: 15
Title: Still Alice
Author: Lisa Genova
Genre: Fiction
Completed: 3/28/09
No. of Pages: 293
Rating: 5/5*****

Alice Howland is leading a pretty good life. At fifty years old she is a Professor of Cognitive Psychology at Harvard and is an expert in linguistics. Her husband John is a respected research scientist also at Harvard. They have 3 adult children and a happy marriage. As Alice begins to notice that she is becoming forgetful and losing things more often she chalks it up to menopause, stress, over work and her very busy life. When she gets lost just a few blocks from her home on a route she knows by heart she knows something is wrong. Scheduling an appointment to see a neurologist she is preparing herself for a diagnosis of a brain tumor. What she gets is a diagnosis of Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease and everything in her life will never be the same.

Lisa Genova has written a powerful and deeply moving book of the descent into Alzheimer’s from the point of view of Alice. By putting a very human face on this disease, we are drawn into the destruction of this illness, not only Alice’s losses, but those of her friends, colleagues and family. I found the writing to be beautiful and felt I really knew Alice and took this journey with her. It has changed the way I think about this disease and its devastating effects.

Anyone who has ever dealt with any overwhelming medical diagnosis can relate to many of the situations portrayed in this story. The most significant message of all is that those who love you and that you have loved are the most important parts of your life, for they will hold their memories of you in their hearts and minds, even if you can’t remember them.

Love the One You're With

Book No: 14
Title: Love the One You’re With
Author: Emily Giffen
Genre: Chick-Lit
Completed: 3/22/09
No. of Pages: 342
Rating: 2/5*****

Let me state up front that I have enjoyed Emily Giffen’s previous three book and was really looking forward to Love the One You’re With, her newest offering.

What a huge disappointment. To put it in perspective it took me 6 weeks to read this book and I can generally read 1-2 books per week. I actually read 3 other books in between because I had no desire to pick this one up after I would put it down for the night, it just wasn’t a compelling book.

The premise of the story is pretty basic. Ellen and Andy are newly married, just 3 months in fact. One day while crossing street in Manhattan Ellen sees her ex-lover, Leo. A few minutes later her cell phone rings (lucky girl she has the same phone number she had eight years ago- the last time she saw Leo) and who is on the phone- none other than said Leo. Before long Ellen is questioning her marriage, friendships, and career choices, all because she can’t seem to stop obsessing over her old flame.

The biggest problem I had with this book was Ellen. She is e-mailing, calling, texting, and meeting with her ex boyfriend all on the sly, without telling her husband. She keeps trying to justify these lapses by finding fault with everything her husband does, just so she can rationalize her behavior; after all she isn’t having an affair. She may not be sleeping with Leo, but she is cheating on her husband and her marriage with every lie and omission. Although Andy comes off as a little too perfect, the only reason Ellen seems to want Leo is he’s sexy. There doesn’t seem to be any other character trait to justify her fixation with Leo. She hasn’t seen or spoken to the man in 8 years, yet she still sees him as perfect, despite the fact that she keeps saying she loves her husband. I just wanted her to be honest with herself just once. When her moment of clarity finally comes it is anti-climatic and no surprise. This book was a total let down.

A Thousand Acres

Book No: 13
Title: A Thousand Acres
Author: Jane Smiley
Genre: Fiction
Completed: 3/17/09
No. of Pages: N/A Audio
Rating: 4/5*****

This book was a very tough read. It is dark and tragic, a tale of a dysfunctional family and how their seemingly normal life careens out of control.

The story is set in the late 70’s and is narrated by Ginny Cook, one of three sisters that were raised on the family farm in Iowa. Rose and Ginny still live on the farm when the story opens. Larry Cook is the girls remaining parent, clearly the dominating factor of their life and master of his domain. Although in their thirties the two sisters live in close proximity on the farm and share the daily care of their father and his home. The third sister Caroline has moved to the city to become a lawyer. When Larry decides to give the farm to Ginny, Rose and their spouses, cutting Caroline out completely, and then reverses his decision, long held secrets and resentments are brought to light.

There are many layers to this tale, as each secret, betrayal and lie is revealed. Throughout it all Ginny seems to be our voice of calm and reason, until she too plans an act so heinous it takes your breath away.

It took a while for me to get into the story, almost half the book before it took up speed and then I couldn’t stop reading. At times it got very depressing, for there is one tragedy after another. Frequently I found the “He said, she said” relaying of conversations annoying and the detail too overdone. However the insular life of a small town is clearly depicted and the bitterness and anger that can often be found within one family is often painfully illuminated. I have to say that I didn’t like a lot of the people in this book, yet I haven’t stopped thinking about them and their story since I finished the book and for me that is the sign of a tale well done.


Book No: 12
Title: Blindspot
Author: Jane Kamensky & Jill Lepore
Genre: Historical Fiction
No. of Pages: 512
Rating: 4/5*****

I really enjoyed this bawdy tale set in the years just prior to the American Revolution. The subtitle of the book is By a Gentleman in Exile and a Lady in Disguise sets out the basic premise of the book.

Stewart Jameson is the gentleman in exile, a newcomer to Boston colonies. Jameson has fled Scotland due to an outstanding debt, which leads us to believe he is a scoundrel, but the nature of that debt is one far more noble and when we learn the reason for it, it allows us to care about Jameson.

The Lady in Disguise is Fanny Easton, once the daughter of one of Boston’s leading citizens. Fanny has fallen from grace and has ended up in the Manufactory House; there she works long hours for food and lodging, scarce as it may be.

When Jameson sets up shop as a portrait painter he places an ad for an apprentice. Seeing the ad Fanny devises her plan to pass herself as a young boy, Francis Weston, and use the job as a way out of poverty. Of course mush confusion occurs when Jameson falls in love with his apprentice and Fanny, in love with Jameson, must keep her secret. When a local prominent politician is killed Francis/Fanny, Jameson and their friend Dr. Alexander, himself a runaway slave, decide to discover who the murderer is.

The story is told in alternating voices, with Jameson writing in a journal and directing his story to us, the Reader. Fanny’s tale is told through her letters to a close friend, the only one who know her secret. Interspersed throughout are several news articles from the Boston Gazette, which lets us know of the political upheaval going on all around our two protagonists.

There is a lot going on in this book besides cross dressing and forbidden love. We have the politics informing us of the start of the uprising of the colonies. There is much discussion of slavery, a contradiction of the Bostonians fight for freedom while they themselves keep slaves. There is the murder, a mockery of a trial, betrayals, insanity and more. The style of the book tries to be true to the timeframe, so the language often sounds stylistic. The humor is often ribald and the sex scenes a little steamy, trying for the tone of some of the classic books of the time (i.e. Tom Jones). However the heart and soul of the book is the love story of Jameson and Fanny.

My Horizontal Life

Book No: 10
Title: My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One Night Stands
Author: Chelsea Handler
Genre: Memoir
Completed: 2/14/09
No. of Pages: 213
Rating: 4/5*****

Warning: Chelsea Handler is not for everyone. She can be insensitive, profane and politically incorrect but she is also likeable and best of all funny, funny, funny. She’s a girl who just wants to have fun, so what if her idea of fun is vodka and a man??

These essays are humorous and there are a few that everyone can relate to. Some are over the top but all of them are funny, even the ones that make you cringe a little. It is a book that makes you laugh, or roll your eyes and wonder: What was she thinking? It’s also a book that you can share with your friends, because everybody knows somebody like the people in this book.

If you like your humor a little twisted and enjoy Chelsea, who is clearly a hot mess, then read this book.

Murder List

Book No: 9
Title: Murder List
Author: Julie Garwood
Genre: Romantic Suspense
Completed: 2/15/09
No. of Pages:
Rating: 2/5*****

This was a free book available to Kindle owners. I would think that if a publisher is going to give a book away, to create interest in an author that has a fairly large catalog, they would choose a very good to great one. This book did not fall into that category and hasn't ratcheted up my interest in reading more from this author. It isn't a terrible book; it's just formulaic and only mildly suspenseful.

Regan Hamilton Madison is beautiful, but doesn't appear to be aware of this fact (please), extremely wealthy, but drives a 10 year old car (again, please!). Her best friends have been her friends since kindergarten (possible, but unlikely). When her friends convince Regan to help them with some amateur investigation of a self-help guru she goes along with the plan, even though it is a harebrained scheme. While at a seminar with the 'guru' everyone is asked to make a list of people they wish were no longer a part of their lives. Regan makes her list; including a mean salesgirl and a few other people she had run-ins with that day. A few days later these people begin turning up dead- and Regan is put into protective custody - with a gorgeous and single cop (you were expecting something else?!). Together they work to solve the mystery, while of course being very attracted to one another (yawn).

The characters were one-dimensional and very unrealistic. The plot was pretty basic and I had figured out the 'surprise' about 1/4 of the way into the book. The dialogue was frequently unbelievable and there was no suspense throughout the book. It was predictable and I'm glad I didn't pay for the book or I'd be very annoyed. It helped pass the time while I was on vacation, but I don't think I'll be rushing out to by another book by Ms. Garwood anytime soon.

Mine Are Spectacular

Book No: 8
Title: Mine are Spectacular
Author: Janice Kaplan & Lynn Schnurnberger
Genre: Chick Lit
Completed: 2/10/09
No. of Pages: N/A
Rating: 3/5*****

Chick-lit for the over forty set.

Most chick lit is for young ‘singletons’ looking for love while balancing a career and friends. This book, as well as the author’s other title The Botox Diaries, targets the over forty set. They have very different problems, second marriages, career versus having children; careers after children are getting older never mind thinking about Botox, liposuction and all other manner of keeping age at bay.

The story centers on three friends; Sara, whose husband ran away 8 years ago leaving her alone to raise their son, and she is about to get married to the wealthy and handsome Bradford; Berni, who at 40, and pregnant with her first children (twins), has left behind her career as a Hollywood agent; and Kate a very successful dermatologist who is having an affair with a married man.

When Bradford’s ex-wife, with sullen teenage daughter in tow and Sara’s ex-husband returns looking to reinsert himself into her life things start to spin a little out of control. Add in the fact that Sara has somehow become a TV star on the Food Network and her gorgeous and handsome very young co-star is smitten with her all kinds of chaos can and will occur.

This is a cute beach read, fluff with little substance, but there is a lot of satirizing of the suburban lifestyle versus Manhattan chic and Sara is held up as the voice of reason in all the madness. I laughed quite a bit and enjoyed the read, but we all know from page one how this will turn out, it’s just fun getting to the end. I do think The Botox Diaries was a bit better though.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

Book No: 7
Title: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
Author: David Wroblewski
Genre: Fiction
Completed: 2/5/09
No. of Pages: 562
Rating: 3/5*****

I don't even know where to start with this book; so many things to like about it, almost as many to dislike. First and foremost I should learn my lesson - I generally dislike books that Oprah chooses, although to be fair I bought this before she chose it.

Edgar Sawtelle is a modern retelling of Hamlet, and since most of Shakespeare's plays are tragedies it is a given that this is not going to be a happy story. It begins innocently enough with an introduction to Edgar and his parents Trudy and Gar who raise Sawtelle dogs, an almost legendary and special breed. Things seem to be going well for this family, despite the fact that Edgar is a mute, he can hear, he just cannot speak. When Gar's younger brother Claude comes back home after many years away life takes a tragic turn with Gar's unexpected death. When Edgar begins to believe Claude played a part in his father's death, a chain of events begins to play out that will have devastating consequences.

Some of the writing in this story was breathtakingly beautiful; at other times it was plodding and boring. There were sections of the book on dog breeding and care that seemed to go on forever and other parts of this tale that got short shrift. The book was overlong by several hundred pages. The most infuriating thing of all is that after investing so much time in this book and its characters the ending was exasperating. I am not one to feel every book must have a happy ending, but I do like books to give me hope or a feeling that wrongs may be righted. I read the last page and was so sure I had read wrong that I went back and re-read the last chapters again. The only way I can explain my feelings for the ending is that I felt betrayed.

I think I might like to read a (smaller) book by this author again, but I would think long and hard about it first.

The Husband

Book No: 6
Title: The Husband
Author: Dean Koontz
Genre: Suspense
Completed: 1/31/09
No. of Pages:
Rating: 4/5*****

The Husband of the title is Mitch Rafferty, his wife is Holly and they are a young married couple, blissfully in love and making plans for the future. While Mitch is working at one of his landscaping jobs he receives a phone call on his cell phone, one that plunges him into a nightmare that goes from bad, to worse and then to unbelievably terrifying. Holly has been kidnapped, the kidnapper’s want 2 million dollars, a sum that is completely out of Mitch’s range. While Mitch tries to reason with the voice on the phone they tell him to look across the street, and then an innocent bystander is shot to death. These guys mean business- no police and they will give Mitch instructions on what to do to save his wife’s life.

I’ve read some Dean Koontz before, but those books had some paranormal aspects to them. This book was a pulse pounding thriller, full of tricks, turns, betrayals and surprises. The story focuses on good versus evil as well as an examination of what it is to love unconditionally and to what lengths a person would go to protect and defend that love. This is one of those stay up all night reads, because every time you think the worst has happened Koontz ratchets it up another notch. Although the ending is a little anti-climatic this was overall a really good read.

Wonderful Tonight

Book No: 5
Title: Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Me
Author: Pattie Boyd
Genre: Memoir
Completed: 1/31/09
No. of Pages: 307
Rating: 2.5/5*****

What a huge disappointment this book was! Pattie Boyd was a 17 year old teenager, on her way to becoming a well known and in demand model (in the days before models were 'stars') when she met George Harrison on the set of A Hard Day’s Night. She subsequently married George and eventually divorced him and married Eric Clapton. She was the inspiration for three of the best love songs ever written, "Something" by Harrison and both "Layla" and "Wonderful Tonight" by Eric Clapton. She lived through some of the most interesting times when London was the epicenter of everything happening in the '60's. So someone please tell me why her book was so damn boring???
This book reveals nothing and name drops incessantly, names that may not mean anything to those who didn't grow up in the '60's. My shopping list is more entertaining than this book. Stories are told but there is no emotion connected to anything. She is aware of her husband’s infidelities, yet never takes a stand against them; she just seems to float through life. Her marriage to Clapton was a nightmare, yet the stories she tells about this time are so cautiously retold that you get no sense of the torment she must have endured. Obviously there is/was something striking about this woman, yet nothing, but nothing comes across in this book. I was hoping to read something that might bring across the energy and a sense of the whirlwind she lived in, but it was an interesting story with little or no passion evident.

The Idiot Girl and the Flaming Tantrum of Death

Book No: 4
Title: The Idiot Girl and the Flaming Tantrum of Death
Author: Laurie Notaro
Genre: Humor/Essays
Completed: 1/30/09
No. of Pages: 240
Rating: 4/5*****

It’s great when I get a book for free and like it, really, really like it. For those of you with a Kindle you can download this book for exactly $0.00 and it’s tagged chick-lit.

This is another funny entry in the Idiot Girl collection by Laurie Notaro. There are times when I was laughing so hard while in the doctor’s office that I know some people thought I was a little nuts.

In this collection Laurie (and her sainted husband) are on vacation when Laurie decides the family across the way are terrorists. Of course as usual she gets a little carried away. There are stories involving a criminal moving into her neighborhood, the travails of moving to a new home in another state, a tale of a backed up sewer line, and a surprisingly sad story involving the loss of a pet. Reading these stories is like hanging out with your slightly nuts girlfriend; you love her but wonder where the heck she gets these nutty ideas, but then she breaks out the margaritas and it’s all good.

Holidays On Ice

Book No: 3
Title: Holidays on Ice
Author: David Sedaris
Genre: Humor/Essays
Completed: 1/25/09
No. of Pages: 166
Rating: 2.5/5*****

I loved When You are Engulfed in Flames and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. Sedaris’ wit, sarcasm and ironic outlook on life, friends and family made me a fan and I am now reading his back catalog. I picked up Holidays on Ice figuring it might be a tonic to the over commercialization of the Christmas Season. I was right and I was wrong. The first story Santaland Diaries was exactly what I was looking for, a skewering of all the things wrong with the mad rush holiday shopping season. It was funny and witty and I knew I was in for a treat. Then I read the next story, which was Greetings to Our Friends and Family, a twisted look at the ubiquitous holiday letter, it was a little too dark and nasty for me. Then I read Christmas Means Giving, a tale of keeping up with the neighbors that turns very grisly. Several of the stories I had read before in Flames and Corduroy, so that was a bit of a disappointment, I didn’t realize all the stories weren’t new. One of the other more memorable stories was Dinah, the Christmas Whore which was quite funny and rather touching. Of course it was a story involving David’s family, where I find his humor at its best. I also really enjoyed Jesus Saves, a hilarious story of David’s French class where everyone of a different nationality tries to explain Easter. So overall this collection was very uneven and it actually took me a month to read this very slight book, because parts of it were just too dark and a little shocking for me.