Thursday, May 23, 2013

How about some book reviews?

I just looked at the list and can count 16 books read since my last reading review.  I didn't love all 16, so how about if I just share my favorites?

Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rivka Brunt:
June Elbus is a 14 yr. old girl growing up in Westchester outside of NYC in 1987.  She feels socially inept and has a fascination with medieval times.  Her walks in the forest behind her home afford her the opportunity to imagine herself back in time as the forest carries none of the trappings of modern society.

As the story opens June and her 16 yr. old sister, Greta,  are having their portrait painted by their maternal Uncle Finn in his NYC apartment.  Finn is June's godfather.  He is a well known artist  and he is dying of AIDs.  The relationship between June and her uncle is a very special bond.  He is the one who understands her fascination with medieval society and feeds her imagination with visits to The Cloisters, medieval fairs, movies, etc. 

The story explores themes of love, sibling relationships, compassion, secrets, and art as a means of expression.  There is a secret relationship, a high school musical, and a very well drawn cast of characters.  The author has done an excellent job of capturing public sentiment towards AIDs in that time period and uses that as a vehicle to drive the plot.

The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making by David Esterly:
David Esterly came to limewood carving by way of degrees in literature from Harvard and Cambridge.  Upon completing his studies at Cambridge in 1974, he stood in St. James Cathedral in Piccadilly London before the 17th century carvings of Grinling Gibbons and knew that such fine art carving is what he would do. 

After the 1986 fire at Hampton Court he was invited to re-carve a 7 foot decorative drop originally carved in Gibbons' shop, but destroyed in the fire.  This book is a reflection on that year of his life where he plumbed the depth of his relationship to Grinling Gibbons, sussed out historically accurate means of recreating the piece, and contemplated the meaning of working with one's body in what he describes as a subtractive art.

Each chapter moves through the distant past, the time period of the restoration, and the time he was writing the book.  There is reflection on the function and meaning of such a slow means of creating in our current, digitally manipulated, world.

During this restoration period he also began to lay the groundwork for a major Gibbons exhibit which finally took place in 1998, more than a decade after the time period of this book.

Anyone who enjoys creating and working with their hands will appreciate the meditative quality of the writing.  Indeed, Esterly's training in literature did not go to waste...his use of language invites the reader into a world that few of us ever glimpse.  If you read this book, make sure to visit the supplemental blog set up by the author to offer more photo's to support the text.  There are photo's in the book, but I've included the link just to suck you into the book.

My Reading Life by Pat Conroy:
I listened to this as an audio book, read by the author.  IMO it made the experience that much more rich.  This is a memoir, narrated through the lens of the author's favorite prose and poetry.   The first chapter deals with the author and his relationship with his mother, summed up through his analysis of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind.  Other chapters go on to reveal other books, both classic and contemporary; other relationships with family, mentors, and friends; and insights into his writing life.  Sprinkled through the book are anecdotes of brief but meaningful encounters.  One hilarious encounter is the befriending of a Japanese man in a French restaurant. 

At the end of the audio book, there is an author interview with the producer of the audio version.  Conroy compares the audio book to the great story telling tradition from the south.  He pointed out the acting ability required of a reader to be able to authentically convey the story in a well produced audio book.  There are still a few of Conroy's books that I have not read, so now I can look forward to Conroy to do what he claims are the greatest four words in the language:  "Tell me a story."

Life After Life by Jill McCorkle:
It's an odd quirk of the publishing world that Jill McCorkle's book, Life After Life was released just a week before Kate Atkinson's book by the same name. I hope that the confusion doesn't cause McCorkle's book to be overlooked.

The author uses the setting of a multi-stage retirement home of Pine Haven in Fulton, North Carolina as a back drop similar to Thornton Wilder's Our Town. The chapters are mostly written in differing points of view of the various characters with a delightful and well drawn range of personalities.

There are several narrative threads in the book:
One deals with Joanna and C.J. Joanna, in her mid-40's, is a native of Fulton who left (escaped) town in her late teens and has returned home after three marriages to care for her dying father. Her mantra is "the longest and most expensive journey you will ever make is the one to yourself". Her job at Pine Haven is a hospice worker who serves as "a bridge between two places - the past and the present -- the before and the after." Her notebook pages about those she has cared for appear in the book, often followed by a short narrative in the voice of the deceased, a bit like Spoon River Anthology.

Joanna is friend and mentor to C.J. a 26 year old "punk, pierced, and tattooed with a baby boy whose father she won't dicuss" who works at Pine Haven as a beautician. She does hair, manicures, and pedicures in a loving way. C.J.'s life has been hard, including her mother's suicide when she was still in school. Joanna and C.J. have shared their stories, many (tho' not all) of their secrets including an exchange about "if anything ever happens to me".....

Another thread deals with Abby, a 12 year old girl who is suffering the loss of her dog, Dollbaby; the effects of a frustrated, selfish mother, Kendra, and an inept "Southern boy" father, Ben. Abby often seeks refuge at Pine Haven, especially with Sadie, the woman who has taught third grade just about everyone in town, and has a business in the nursing home helping to others to realize thwarted dreams.

The remaining cast of characters include:
Stanley, a retired lawyer who carries out his own brand of theatrics in the nursing home for his own reasons, and also knows most of the long time residents of Fulton. Rachel, a retired Jewish lawyer from Massachusetts who has come to Pine Haven to recover the essence of an unfulfilled romance. Toby, a retired high school literature teacher and lesbian. And Marge, the widow of the town judge who keeps a scrapbook of true crime in the region.

The author uses poetic, descriptive language to describe emotions, events and memories. She is a southern woman writer who spent much of her adulthood in New England and this provides keen insight into the characters and culture conveyed in the novel. She is able to convey a Southern sensibility as well as a Northern perspective on that sensibility (mostly through the character of Rachel).

There is a lot packed into this book. It's the kind of story that calls back to the reader long after reaching the end of the story.

So, there you have it 4 books: 2 fiction, 2 nonfiction.  Am currently reading Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof (nonfiction), The Bruges Tapestry by P.A.Staes (fiction - ebook), and am listening to Benediction by Kent Haruf (fiction)

Happy Reading....

1 comment:

  1. Valerie, I read Tell the Wolves I'm Home on my way to MA this year. I loved it. Then of course I switched to Elizabethan England for a long string of mysteries and throw in some science fiction/fantasy (Wool). Right now some Paul Theroux travel,(Africa). Took forever to get his books on Kindle. I'm still wishing for another magical read like The Night Circus. Hope she's working on one! Thanks for the list.


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