Friday, August 5, 2016

July Reads



The After Party: A Novel by Anton DiSclafani

Synopsis: Joan Fortier is the epitome of Texas glamour and the center of the 1950s Houston social scene. Tall, blonde, beautiful, and strong, she dominates the room and the gossip columns. Every man who sees her seems to want her; every woman just wants to be her. But this is a highly ordered world of garden clubs and debutante balls. The money may flow as freely as the oil, but the freedom and power all belong to the men. What happens when a woman of indecorous appetites and desires like Joan wants more? What does it do to her best friend?

Devoted to Joan since childhood, Cece Buchanan is either her chaperone or her partner in crime, depending on whom you ask. But as Joan’s radical behavior escalates, Cece’s perspective shifts—forcing one provocative choice to appear the only one there is.

A thrilling glimpse into the sphere of the rich and beautiful at a memorable moment in history, The After Party unfurls a story of friendship as obsessive, euphoric, consuming, and complicated as any romance.
My take: THIS is the book I was hoping for when I started (but didn't finish) reading Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty last month. Cece Buchanan is Jay Gatsby staring at the green light across the water in East Egg and dreaming of Daisy, or maybe she's Nick Carraway narrating the tragedy if The Great Gatsby was set in Houston in the Fifties. Great summer read.

The Summer of Curtis Sittenfeld

American Wife: A Novel 

Synopsis: A kind, bookish only child born in the 1940s, Alice Lindgren has no idea that she will one day end up in the White House, married to the president. In her small Wisconsin hometown, she learns the virtues of politeness, but a tragic accident when she is seventeen shatters her identity and changes the trajectory of her life. More than a decade later, when the charismatic son of a powerful Republican family sweeps her off her feet, she is surprised to find herself admitted into a world of privilege. And when her husband unexpectedly becomes governor and then president, she discovers that she is married to a man she both loves and fundamentally disagrees with–and that her private beliefs increasingly run against her public persona. As her husband’s presidency enters its second term, Alice must confront contradictions years in the making and face questions nearly impossible to answer.

My take: As many know, this book is loosely (or sometimes closely) based on Laura Bush. After living thirty years in Texas, many of the anecdotes in this book are familiar to me. There are others that didn't make the book. A good friend of mine, a dyed in the wool Democrat, worked with Laura Bush setting up the Texas Book Festival, and she once said if Laura was running she'd probably vote Republican for the first and last time ever.

Alice Lindgren is the kind of person you might say that about. While it's clearly not an insight into the mind of THE Laura Bush, it does explore an interesting question : How do two people who are so different, you might say total opposites, love each other? Perhaps this book explores the very nature of love and the amount of forgiveness and tolerance two people must find in each other if they are in love. If you read this book, try not to match the anecdotes with things you know about Laura and W and simply immerse yourself in the story.

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Prep: A Novel

Synopsis: Curtis Sittenfeld’s debut novel, Prep, is an insightful, achingly funny coming-of-age story as well as a brilliant dissection of class, race, and gender in a hothouse of adolescent angst and ambition.

Lee Fiora is an intelligent, observant fourteen-year-old when her father drops her off in front of her dorm at the prestigious Ault School in Massachusetts. She leaves her animated, affectionate family in South Bend, Indiana, at least in part because of the boarding school’s glossy brochure, in which boys in sweaters chat in front of old brick buildings, girls in kilts hold lacrosse sticks on pristinely mown athletic fields, and everyone sings hymns in chapel.

As Lee soon learns, Ault is a cloistered world of jaded, attractive teenagers who spend summers on Nantucket and speak in their own clever shorthand. Both intimidated and fascinated by her classmates, Lee becomes a shrewd observer of–and, ultimately, a participant in–their rituals and mores. As a scholarship student, she constantly feels like an outsider and is both drawn to and repelled by other loners. By the time she’s a senior, Lee has created a hard-won place for herself at Ault. But when her behavior takes a self-destructive and highly public turn, her carefully crafted identity within the community is shattered.

My take: Sittenfeld does coming of age stories well. Although most of us never had the boarding school experience, I think we all might find ourselves mirrored in Lee, her struggle to grow up, and the betrayal that overtakes her in a very public way. I enjoyed the novel immensely, yet I struggle to write something about it that doesn't sound exactly like the many other reviews I've done of Sittenfeld, which is not to say that this novel is repetitive or unoriginal.

I can say this: Prep is an essentially American novel in the way The Great Gatsby is an American novel. Lee Fiora is Jay Gatsby, IF Gatsby:

  • Was a girl
  • Who had Nick Carraway's introspective personality
  • Went to boarding school instead of embracing crime
  • Got over Daisy Fay Buchanan
  • Was assassinated by the New York Times instead of George Wilson
  • Went on to live a productive life 
If that doesn't entice you to read Prep, nothing will.

(And seriously,why am I  seeing Gatsby parallels in my reading this month? Is it time to read Gatsby again, or maybe watch the latest movie version?)


Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet by Charlie N. Holmberg

Synopsis: Maire is a baker with an extraordinary gift: she can infuse her treats with emotions and abilities, which are then passed on to those who eat them. She doesn’t know why she can do this and remembers nothing of who she is or where she came from.

When marauders raid her town, Maire is captured and sold to the eccentric Allemas, who enslaves her and demands that she produce sinister confections, including a witch’s gingerbread cottage, a living cookie boy, and size-altering cakes.

During her captivity, Maire is visited by Fyel, a ghostly being who is reluctant to reveal his connection to her. The more often they meet, the more her memories return, and she begins to piece together who and what she really is—as well as past mistakes that yield cosmic consequences.

From the author of The Paper Magician series comes a haunting and otherworldly tale of folly and consequence, forgiveness and redemption.

My take: As I told a friend who asked if I was going to review this book, "Yes, but I'm not quite sure what I think about it."  Expect rambling to follow.

Clearly, the novel worked well enough for me to finish it. These days if a book doesn't hold my interest, I just quit reading it. So, it has that going for it.

Let me get my major points of dissatisfaction out in the open right away.
  • The novel felt uncomfortably misogynistic. She (yes, Charlie is a she)  dwelt a little too long and lovingly on the abuse and beatings even in a story where penance is de rigueur for forgiveness and redemption.
  • About 85% of the way in (according to my Kindle), the author just seemed to give up on telling the story. The remaining 15 percent felt rushed and pedantic, almost an afterword. While I might have had issues with the misogyny, the earlier parts of the book engaged me with the lushness of its prose and its sensual details. The ending felt like someone dumped a bucket of ice on my head, although there was a bit of a return to the good writing in the epilogue. 
So, what did I like about Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet. I loved the concept of magic in the world via something as ordinary as baked goods. At its best, this novel captured the poetry and magic of Like Water for Chocolate. As someone mentioned in another review, it is a fairy tale inside a fairy tale, although, sadly, never quite as satisfying as a fairy tale. 

I am also a big fan of forgiveness and redemption stories, particularly those that are flavored with a bit of hubris. Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet had, at times, the elegiac tone of a Greek tragedy with a (maybe) happy ending. Like a Greek tragedy, the mortals, semi-immortals, and the gods in this book are flawed, but intriguing. I was left, however, somewhat puzzled by what redemption looks like. The very last line of the novel seemed to undercut what I might have considered the redemptive moment.

Homberg's world building and magical system also didn't hold up for me in the long run. There were certain inconsistencies that made me think she was going in one direction, and then it would just come to a dead end. And off we'd race in another direction.

Right at the end, she brought in a motherhood trope that was a device to make the action of the story make sense. It seemed to come out of the blue and (going with the Greek tragedy theme) was quite literally deus ex machina. In no other parts of the book, do we get any sense that Maire was longing to be a mother or had anything approaching maternal feelings. Was there a moral to the whole motherhood thing? I'm not sure. 

I can't wholeheartedly recommend the book, but I can call it a brilliant and intriguing experiment that didn't live up to its promise.