99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret

9780374906047Finished my first non-Brothers Karamazov book.  It was the highly acclaimed Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret.  Like a lot of people, I was intrigued by this book from watching the crown, where Margaret sort of steals the show.

Side note:  many of the people in this book would have felt comfortable around Pyotr Karamazov and the Windsors might rival the Karamazovs in dysfunction.

It’s gotten a ton of positive recognition.  It made the NY Times 100 notable book list, NPR, and several others.

I enjoyed it fine.  I ended up giving it 3-stars…but I enjoyed it.  One thing I recognized from reading the book is that while those of us here in the US we’ve come to bemoan the rise of our TMZ-infused celebrity culture, that kind of thing has been going on a long time in Britain, with the Royals occupying the stage.

So, there’s a bunch of different references to British tittering scandal culture that kind of went over my head, which probably impacted the enjoyment of the book.  Beyond that, I just wasn’t raised with the “you’d never do that in front of a royal” stuff that you might if you were raised in Britain.

For example, after meeting a bunch of Americans, the Queen was asked how it went.  She said, drolly, “I’ve shaken a lot of hands.”  Apparently, you’re not supposed to touch her.

It was a very good book for titillating detail of how a woman–who was not raised to be in the line to the throne–made her way through life as a second fiddle.  It’s classic younger sibling birth order stuff put into a blender.  In many ways, she was a train wreck…heavy drinking and smoking and reckless behavior and callous treatment of people…it was a pretty bumpy ride.

The book’s real accomplishment is taking someone who was always defined by those things, and giving you a little understanding of the loneliness of that particular life.  I know, they are first world problems and people have had to deal with a lot worse, but if you’re going to take the time to decide she was a mean bitch you can at least try to see how anybody else might have ended up that way in the same situation.  You should see some truly kind things she did.  And if you’re going to live vicariously through the royal family, you should do it through a real lens and not a Disney cartoon.

Last interesting point.  In Britain, the book was titled “Ma’am Darling:  Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret.”  Isn’t that interesting?  I suspect that people here wouldn’t really grasp what that was referring to, but I always think it is interesting when the titles of books are different for relatively narrow slices of readership.

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

22450859I took a trip (practicing highway driving) to the local Books a Million (bookstores here are not as plentiful as they were back in Toronto). This book was on sale and I was like….boom. Or BAM since I was in Books a Million (see what I did there).

I was a huge fan of The Red Tent (Diamant’s first book) so I wanted to check this out. Obviously the time period was different: biblical times vs. 1900’s Boston. However, the subject matter was similar, in a way.

Obviously this book is about a “Boston Girl”. It’s the story of Addie Baum. She is the daughter of Jewish immigrants, and the only one of her siblings to be born in America. The story is told from Addie’s point of view – as she is telling her life story to her granddaughter.

Addie is sassy and smart and funny. I really felt for her and the hardships that she faced throughout her life. This book really struck home to me how much different things were, not that long ago.

I guess this is a coming of age story, but it’s more than that. How does your heritage form your growth and development? How does family do that? I think that the author did a good job of posing those questions.

This book is also about female empowerment. In a lot of ways Addie is a trailblazer: from wanting to have an education, not being obsessed with getting a husband, and wanting to make her own life. This is also about the power of friendships – those people who are close to us proximity-wise, and those friends who aren’t, but are just as close and important to us.

If you are going to read this expecting The Red Tent, you are going to be disappointed. But if you want an interesting and engaging read, and want to meet a sassy and funny lady, then this is for you.

I rated this 4/5 stars on Goodreads.

Book Review Catch Up: 3 for 1

I got a bit behind in my blogging and book reviewing. You know, life got in the way. But, I am back baby!

I thought I would do a few posts with some mini-reviews of the books that I read over the summer.

immortThe Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

I picked this book up on my first foray to the local library. It got a lot of press and was on a bunch of ‘must read’ lists for the summer. So I figured, why not.

The story is about Gold family, who live in New York City. When they were kids, the 4 Gold children hear about a travelling psyhcic who claims to be able to tell you the date you will die. They go and visit. They don’t really talk about it. Naturally they are skeptical.

This story is about what happens when you know when your last day on earth will be. Will you live life to the fullest? Will you buy into the date and make sure it’s your last day?

I liked this book. It definitely kept me guessing as to what was going to happen next. It was a bit sad, I mean, the book basically deals with the imminent death of the characters. However, it was well written and engaging.

I rated it 4/5 stars on Goodreads.


The One You Really Want by Jill Mansell

As my husband says, this was what was advertised on the tin. When you pick up a Jill Mansell book you are looking for an easy and fun read. This is what you get here.

For me, it ended up being about friendships – unlikely friendships – and how important it is to have a support system.

It was fun and entertaining. If you are looking for light and fun, this is a read for you.

I  rated it 3/5 stars on Goodreads.

wolitzerThe Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

I had read another novel of hers, The Interestings, and enjoyed it. So I thought I would pick this one up at the local library. Also, there was a lot..A LOT of press and stuff about this when it was released.

So I struggled a bit with this book. I mean, I liked it. I think that it was an interesting premise. But somehow I felt sort of manipulated by the plot. I don’t really know how to explain it other than that.

The book is about what it means to be a feminist, about the dangers of idolizing people and how to find your way in the world. There were parts that were insightful. But there were parts that seemed typical.

I think it’s worth a read.

I rated this 4/5 stars on Goodreads.


Review: Powerhouse/Guilty Pleasure

CAA bookOne of my favorite guilty pleasures is stories of Hollywood people having badly.  Love The Player.  Love Entourage.  Always a good time.

I was therefore naturally attracted to Powerhouse by James Andrew Miller.  This is the story of the founding of Creative Artists, the ground-breaking literary agency.  (I also read Miller’s book on ESPN).  Miller’s trademark is writing oral histories, and he is extremely good at it.  There is commentary when needed, but it is used sparingly.  He doesn’t re-invent dialogue (I’m looking at you Bob Woodward), but takes the actual quotes and puts them under the name of the actual person who said it.  (It’s a little Studs Terkelish).

There’s a huge amount of skill in how these things are assembled.  He lets the reader play along.  For example, he will juxtapose two recollections which are 100% divergent, and let you, first, gawk, and then second decide for yourself who is right.  ProTip:  When you are faced with an employee saying that the work environment is shit and a CEO saying it was collegial and supportive, believe the employee

Anyway, the book has more than its share of bat-shit crazy people, starting with Michael Ovitz.  There are certainly others–this is Hollywood–but Ovitz is the king of the bat house.  Someone calls him a “maniac” and that might be the most perfect word for it.

Not only are the agents included, but many of the clients as well.

The only thing I didn’t expect to find was good guys.  Ron Meyer, a co-founder, is just a 100% good guy.  In fact, there are numerous testimonials of performers who credit CAA for their very career–people like David Letterman, Sarah Jessica Parker, Tom Hanks, Eva Longoria–and do so in such an emotional and effusive way that it blows away the caricature of the agent we usually see.

CAA’s innovation was to work across the functional lines of the company, allowing Eva Longoria (for example) to develop a film career along with extending her into other businesses.  Letterman had a similar story and there are others.  And they made a difference in the lives of a wide variety of artists and performers in a wide variety of fields.

One other thing.  I don’t know what I thought, but the agents in this book work incredibly hard.  It’s a 24/7 story, at least for the ones who excel.  There’s no downtime and little sleep.  I am not sure I have ever met any single person who works as hard as ALL these people do.  It’s a lifestyle decision.  Yes, you will get rich but you have to live like this to get it.  Nothing comes without trade-offs.

My recommendation is that if you like stories of Hollywood, this book is for you.  And if you like business dramas, this book is for you.

Review: Red Sparrow

Should have been her, not Jennifer Lawrence

So while I was up North, my mother and step-father recommended that I read Red Sparrow.  They had both read it and they know I like the Americans, so it was kind of like a human Amazon-type thing….

People who like The Americans also liked Red Sparrow….

Anyway, I borrowed their copy and they were right.  It was really good.  It is written by Jason Matthews, a guy who lived that life, and I found it a little unfair for a guy to have been an accomplished spy and write this well at the same time.  It’s just very entertaining and a great read with great characters and a huge amount of tension.

Similar to Leaving Berlin, it is an incredible feeling to be transformed into a world where you are always being watched…where any slight deviation can expose you.  Where being seen somewhere you didn’t belong could unmask you. Where you have to execute a two-hour series of maneuvers to ensure you are not being followed.  It creates non-stop tension that makes for good reading.

The book has some tried and true elements, such as a drop-dead gorgeous Natasha type (Dommenika) who has some very special training from the Russians.  There’s some sex and there’s the classic storyline of two spies trying to spy on each other at the same time.

Even better, whereas The Americans was set in the Soviet era, this book is set in the more or less present.  Putin is trying to rebuild Russia’s intelligence and counter-intelligence to KGB-standards.  Even better than that is that Putin himself appears in the story a few times, including a meeting held in his basement while he lifts weights with his shirt off.

One last item which is either an additional enticement or a warning.  Like all the great books of this genre, Red Sparrow does not flinch from any of the gory details, from the training Domenika experienced to torture to murder to the experience of a self-inflicted pre-capture suicide.  You’re getting a full look at all of that in this book, which I believe is some readers of this type of book secretly relish.

Gave this four-stars for sure and I will be working my way through the next book in the trilogy.  For fellow Americans fans, this is a great read.

Less: A Review

lessBarb bought me Less by Andrew Sean Greer for my birthday last month, and it has been waiting patiently until I had a chance to pick it up about a week ago.  Less comes with obvious recommendations, having won the Pulitzer Prize, and I was looking forward to reading it.

It is a great book, certainly deserving of all the praise.  The essential story is that Arthur Less is an author about to turn 50 who goes on an around the world tour after having his heart broken.  It’s funny and charming and sad and funny and ultimately the kind of book that stays with you.

Reading Less was a very interesting experience.  I enjoyed the entire book.  As I was cruising through the first 90%, I was entertained and very satisfied.  The story moves along well and was constantly compelling.  Note that the trip-around-the-world frame is almost unbeatable because it provides access to a wide selection of exotic locales and people, because it by nature gives the story momentum, and because it is the perfect backdrop for a character whose deeper voyage is to explore himself.

So the first 90% was really good.  I was, however, reading it and thinking in the back of my mind that as good as the book is, it didn’t seem like the kind of thing that wins Pulitzer Prizes.

And then in the last 10%, Greer gives us magic.  I’ve read books like this before, though I can’t remember an example.  The last ten pages of Less are a literary explosion.  They open your head up and you see vistas of open water and you hear cool breezes.  The previous pages, where the reader was on a pleasure cruise down a canal, now come back to life and are experienced again in a single burst.  The book is transcendent.

When you are finished, you understand the awards.  The writing is brilliant.  The ability–the control–to carry a reader along with a deft touch, entertaining and even delighting them while resisting the urge to unleash the crescendo, that’s an incredible piece of storytelling.  It’s a huge gamble.  If the end isn’t a crescendo, the book is merely good or even worse.  The mastery to set that trap for yourself and then escape is brilliant.  It’s a gift to the reader.

A couple other notes.  One thing that literary fiction often loses is the idea of a story.  Greer succeeds here.  Less is, above all, a story.  Even better, it is a simple story.  One main character and the moons around him.  There are flashbacks, but natural, like you would use if you were telling a story verbally.

Lastly, Greer has a world-class grasp of language.  He has a writer’s grasp of detail and the ability to create a sense of place.  His visual metaphors are just perfect–novel and accessible at the same time.

This book deserves to be read.

Review: French Exit by Patrick deWitt

french exitI was super pumped to get approved to review this book. First, he is Canadian! Second, I read, and loved his novel The Sisters Brothers.

I will say that his style, for me, is reminiscent of Christoper Moore (ish) – kind of dark humour (I mean humor), a little absurd, and a little quirky. I happen to like those things in a novel.

This book is about Frances and her adult son Malcolm. They used to be part of the upper crust of the Upper East Side, but through scandal and bankruptcy they have fallen from grace. They make a hasty exit to Paris to live in a friends’ apartment there.

I don’t like to give too much of the plot away, so I won’t. (You are capable of reading the synopsis of the book on Goodreads.)

I like that this is different. It’s not the same old cookie cutter narrative. It’s funny (I was laughing out loud at many parts), and it’s also poignant and sad. I think that is a tribute to the author’s skill to be able to paint those emotions so well – and not have it be sappy or morose.

This book is about families – the ones you are born into and the ones you choose. And finding your tribe. Not to give too much away, but at a late point in the book a bunch of misfits are basically living in the French apartment – collected like stray cats. And they all seem to need something from each other. Not in the material sense, but companionship.

I really enjoyed this book. If you like your books a bit off the wall then this is a great read for you. And, if you like his other novels, you will for sure like this one.

I gave it a 4/5 star rating on Goodreads.

Full disclosure: I received this eARC from Edelweiss for a fair and honest review. (Thanks Edelweiss!)

Ohio…additional thoughts

ohio-9781501174476_hrAdditional thoughts based on my reading of Ohio.  Between the theme and the writing, I was reminded of a couple of other things I have read recently.

As noted in the review, I thought Markley did a great job with this book and he is a very skilled writer.  One thing I noticed in several places where some passages which evoked the good parts of the DFW style.  Specifically, both DFW and Markley have the ability to create a list of details to describe a scene that creates an explosion in the reader’s mind.  Here’s an example from Ohio–of what was left behind in foreclosed houses.

They left value behind: gas grills, furniture, jewelry, vinyl albums, Beanie Babies, plaques with framed prayers, frozen steaks, the entire Bible on a set of CDs, bikes, and one eccentric left thirty-odd ducks penned in beside a small backyard pond.

The difference between Markley and DFW is that Markley knows when to stop, whereas DFW will tend to continue to lick his balls because he can.

It’s good writing…kind of a photographic technique to describing something big by listing little things.  The artifacts we possess–and then leave–must say something about who we are and these kinds of lists allow you to include the reader in the process of exploring the homes without telling them what to think.

The other comparison I found might be a little odder.  A while ago I read Mothers Tell Your Daughters, a collection of stories by Bonnie Jo Campbell, an outstanding Michigan-based writer.  Both Markley and Campbell write from the perspective of how people in the Great Lakes are living in the post-crash, post-manufacturing world.  Campbell’s characters are in the country and Markley’s in a smallish town, but everything else is similar.

Both writers share the same motif of purposelessness, drug use, drug sales, alcohol abuse and violence….particularly sexual violence.

To be more specific, both Campbell and Markley present men as being a persistent and toxic presence in the lives of their families.  Unless, of course, they are absent entirely.  There are just really striking scenes in the Campbell work about Mothers and Daughters tip-toeing around the malevolent presence of the men in their lives.  And, in Ohio, violence by men is the sun around which the story revolves.

I’m not sure what the point is.  I’m tempted to say that these men were raised to be producers and bread-winners and in a world where that has been stripped from them we find them sullen and ever-threatening.  Or, it means that men are just shits or more likely to be shits or just much worse shits.

Either way, its jarring as a man to see it.  And not pleasant to read.  No one ever promised us that literature would make us feel good, though.

Ohio: A Review

ohio-9781501174476_hrThanks to Netgalley, I had the opportunity to give this book a pre-read before it is released today.  There’s a lot of hype about the book and I will be interested to see what the overall reaction is.

As for my take, this is a great book.  I gave it 5-stars, which I almost never do.  Ohio is an absorbing book that does what a great book should do, which is to transport you to a place and time and let you live there among the characters, who are as real as they could be.

The book should come with a warning.  It is dark.  I mean dark.  If you are one of those people who sees the last days of Rome when you look around the world today, then you’re going to find yourself at home in Ohio.  This is the perfect book for the Trump age.  (Conversely, if you’re in the Fox News/MAGA crowd, then I suspect you might well find this book degrading).

I liken it to a kind of American Graffiti meets the 2016 election meets Hillbilly Elegy, except in a dying Ohio steel town, not a dying Ohio mill town.  It’s a story about a group of people who meet in high school in the previously mentioned steel town and takes place both in the high school timeframe and then years later.

You know the tableau.  This is the post 9/11 generation.  They are victims–directly–of the Great Recession, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the opiate crisis.  Oh, and victims of growing up in a dead town–think, Steubenville–and their future isn’t looking too bright.

I am not one for plot summaries, except to say that this book is expertly plotted.  Without giving any of it up, I will just advise you to hang on tight.  The two swathes of time carry the story and reveal plot developments as softly as a brush on canvas. For all of Ohio’s disturbing trip down through the “dark corner of the American Experiment,” (Wire reference) the last 100 pages and chock full of drama that would work in any thriller.

I don’t live in a small town, so that was one way that I was transported to a place that was unfamiliar to me.  The other was what I would call, for lack of a better term, “high school culture.”  I understand that for a lot of people, high school is not just the key act in life’s drama, but the music that plays in the background the rest of the time.  High School–who dated who, who played football, who dumped who, who cheated on who, that night someone got so high or drunk…and the fucking, oh man…anyway, it had impact and gravity to some people.  A lot of them.

I was not in that group.  Nobody I knew was in that group.  So, I got a look at that as well.

I am from Ohio, where I have lived most of my life.  The book mentions Toledo (where I live now), Bowling Green (where I went to college) and Van Wert, which might be a bigger shithole than any of those towns over in the eastern part of the state.

I have a couple more posts coming out of this book, but in the meantime, I can’t recommend this book enough. It won’t make you feel good, but that’s not the job of art.  It will make you feel something though, which is the job of art.

The Shortest Way Home by Miriam Parker

shortestIn this story, Hannah is just finishing up graduate school in San Francisco. She and her boyfriend Ethan decide to take a few days and drive to Sonoma for a break. Hannah ends up being enchanted (not like in the magical way) with a winery they visit and she starts to question her choices and what she is going to do with her future.

This book had me at Sonoma. The husband and I went there for our honeymoon and we really had a lovely time. We actually were in Healdsburg not specifically Sonoma. But I digress…..

The author did a great job in capturing the essence and the feel of the area. You get the feeling when you are there that the families and winemakers are passionate about making wine and instilling that love of wine to others. And that makes up the essence of this story.

Hannah’s story is also about following your passion and making decisions that others may not agree with or even understand. This is also something I have some familiarity with (move from Toronto to Toledo?!?) I think this is captured well in the story. Sometimes you need to do things because they feel right and not because it’s the logical choice. And Hannah struggles with that.

Overall this was a delightful story that kept my interest and is great for a beach/cottage read but also has enough depth to it to make it thoughtful and meaty.

I gave it a 4/5 star rating on Goodreads.

Full disclosure: I received this eARC from NetGalley for a fair and honest review. (Thanks NetGalley!)