The Museum of Extraordinary Things

museum

I requested Alice Hoffman’s latest novel because I thought 2011′s The Dovekeepers was among the most powerful books I’ve ever read. Let it be said, I’m an Alice Hoffman newbie: I’ve only read The Dovekeepers and this latest offering. But I know that she can write and achieve a depth of characterization that totally infuses her pages.

Case in point: Hoffman’s does an impressive job with the backstories of Coralie and Eddie in The Museum of Extraordinary Things. Both feel bound by existential chains – one tormented by his freedom in defecting from his religious faith and the other tormented by her confinement, under the care of her sinister father. You will feel the agony of them both – how lost they are, how much they regret, how much more they hope for themselves. But then, when they come together finally, after 200 pages and  several interweaving stories, the substance crumbles. They fall in love instantly and don’t struggle to traverse each other’s difficult pasts so that they might create a future together. Coralie pines over Eddie the entire book because of a singular time she sighted him in the woods and Eddie dreams of her nightly. Ultimately, their basis for being together seems wispy and insubstantial, more convenient then anything else, once they converge during a specific point in the plot.

Not only was the love of the main characters unbelievable, several subplots seemed unnecessary, crowding what should have been a much more developed story. I would’ve liked to see this book be simply about the starkly different realities of Coralie and Eddie – one an attraction in a museum on Coney Island, an anomaly because of her webbed fingers, and the other a former tailor venturing down questionable paths. Instead there is a murder mystery thrown in, a father figure made out to be a Frankenstein creator and (we’re supposed to believe) Coralie herself who is half human, half mermaid. Hoffman is known for her magical realism but in this book it was a little too much for me. I preferred The Dovekeepers – more gritty, real, powerful and epic as it is. In fact, I recommend it highly. Make it the next book you pick up – it’s that good – and leave The Museum of Extraordinary Things to fantasy.

Many thanks to Scribner, a division of Simon and Schuster, for my review copy!

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

fikry

I’ll keep this short, since this book has been reviewed and loved by so many already. And I’ll write to offer a slightly dissenting opinion. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy this story about the bookish life and bookish love. I chuckled all the way through it, tearing occasionally and taking genuine heart from these like-minded characters, who believe “a place is not a place without a bookstore.” It’s possible I enjoyed it a little too much. It felt, the entire time, like a guilty pleasure, like devouring a chocolate bar and then reaching for another . These sorts of experiences feel too good to be true – and it kind of was.

Ultimately, I found this book a little too cutesy. The descriptions of small-town life felt cliche,’ like I was reading a scene out of the Gilmore Girls TV series. Do people really live  this way? So close, so cozy, so all-for-one? I live in a very close-knit community, and still I have my doubts.

Zevin accomplishes a lot in a very few amount of pages. This is a complicated, convoluted story and perhaps that is my biggest complaint: I wanted more of it! I wasn’t ready to let go of these characters. What happens to Amy and Maya? Does Amy begin again? Does Maya go to college, grow up, get married and become a writer, as her father predicted? There’s room for a sequel, or at the very least some expansion in these pages.

Still it was a pleasure to read a novel that was so book-centric, to feel at home among book people who just happen to be characters. If you’re looking for a treat of a read – or just want to feel it’s okay to love books this much – get to know A.J. Fikry.

Stoner

stoner

This book has become something of a modern classic but I only heard of it recently. The blurbs are effusive – Emma Straub calls it “the most beautiful book in the world” – and other readers sigh with over-the-top admiration. So, of course, I had to read it.

I think, because I went into it with such high expectations, I was taken aback by how dreary the plot is. Clear, crisp writing – sentimental when it needs to be, a joy to read – but the plot, particularly Stoner’s loveless marriage to frigid Edith, is really, really disheartening. There’s also the principles of Calvinism at work here – the notion that a life spent dedicated to hard work, be it in the field or of the mind, is a life well-spent. But to me Stoner’s life – which is first one of exciting study and new possibilities – slowly erodes so that work is a safe haven against a thankless home life – so thankless that even teaching can’t prove rewarding enough. Poor Stoner, you will think for the first 150 pages of this book. Poor Stoner.

Interestingly, the tempo of the book lifts when *spoiler here* Stoner has his extramarital affair. Suddenly there is life in the pages as he discovers love, and passion as it should be. As a reader, I was glad for him, glad he knew at last what he’d been missing. (As unprincipled as it is, I think you’ll agree with me here, disliking Edith so much you’ll be unable to find sympathy for her.) The book swings back and forth then – to marriage as it shouldn’t be and love as it should. Katherine, the love interest, will fade and Stoner will be met with the task of reconciling his life and his work to a satisfactory end before he dies. Predictably, the book gets philosophical towards the close, but any life-to-death story should. Stoner is a quiet book of the mind, with the dreary and the euphoric existing side by side. It’s a difficult pendulum to swing and Williams does it to great effect. Give this book a try for some good old classical writing and the singular examination of a life.

This book fulfills part of my 2014 TBR Challenge.

The Enchanted

enchanteds

The beauty of The Enchanted lies not in who did what to land in its death row prison, but in what the dungeon is like – the culture and climate of the place. The slave wages, the food (so foul that food poisoning runs rampant) the rape shed, where newbie prisoners are routinely violated, the bed bugs that crunch underneath the mattresses, the gaunt faces and hollow bellies of the prisoners as they dream of air and trees and sky.

It is grim, this setting, and dark, which is to be expected when the focal point of a novel is underground. And yet there is something lighthearted and whimsical about it, too, a fantastical element that Denfeld intersperses wonderfully between the hopeless moments. It’s a perfect juxtaposition, this marriage between doom and imagination, and it makes the novel an arrestingly engaging read.

While I was reading I thought repeatedly of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, because there is the same lyricism in the language and the same intensity. And yes, I understood the comparisons to The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold because there is the same depth and universality in the tone. But again the fantastical aspects – the galloping golden horses that make themselves felt after every execution, the little men that bang diligently with hammers during the quiet moments, the filbergibbets who are horrid and slimy and the glorious escape that books provide – are what make this novel unique.

Thinking back on it now, I can’t tell you exactly what the death row inmates did – the particulars are blurry because, for once, they are not the point. The point is compassion, for even these monstrous creatures. It’s difficult to feel compassion for people who do such heinous things but Denfeld makes you feel it. That is her accomplishment.

The prisoners in this book are human and vulnerable and wanting. They cower, display false bravado and hope when they shouldn’t.  As we read, we get to know them; we live among them in their squalid conditions, and we witness the improbable castle they make for themselves in their minds. By the novel’s end, we may even question our beliefs or at least allow ourselves to wonder what happens after the sentence is handed down.

Many thanks to TLC Book Tours and HarperCollins Books for my advanced reader’s copy!

This Reader is Going on Vacation!

My husband and I will be taking a very anticipated vacation to Florida from April 2nd to April 7th! Happily, it corresponds nicely with Rachel’s 24 in 48 read-a-thon. This will be the first time in a long time I’ll have uninterrupted time to read and I am so excited. Weirdly, though, I’m stressing about which books to take with me! I’m gravitating towards Sadie Jones’ Fallout and Lauren Oliver’s The Quick but both reviews won’t post until May and I feel like, even I get both books read, the blog will be empty for it. I’m the worst at filler posts, you guys. What do you do when you are in between reviews?

I love reviewing current books – writing something up and then immediately hitting publish. There’s that sense of immediate gratification in the reader responses. But when you read books ahead of time, as I tend to do, there’s a lapse in blog-time that’s not necessarily indicative of your reading life. Conundrum. Well, there is always The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry! If the blogosphere is any indication, it seems like I have to read that one immediately – and it’s out already!

fallout                                                       quick

Will I read more than two books in five days? What else should I take with me? It feels like these two want company….

Spring 2014 TBR

springtbr

It’ll be a mix of ARCs and TBR books this Spring. In fact, I plan on dedicating a whole month (not sure if it will be May or June yet) to my TBR Challenge. Advancing through this pile will take some time – 6 out of the 10 featured here are chunksters at over 450 pages, but I’m excited for what looks like some great reads.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck - I’ve been wanting to read this forever and feel like I’ll get to over it over the Passover break. What is it about Passover that has me itching to read it? The biblical themes?

The Midnight Rose by Lucinda Riley – It’s funny how I came across this one. I e-mailed a publicist hoping for an ARC of Jodi’s Picoult’s 2014 release, before learning she wasn’t with S&S anymore. The publicist did represent Kate Morton though, who has a new book coming out in November. She didn’t have a galley to send me yet but could send me this in the meantime – the comparable Lucinda Riley, whom she recommends. I’ll take it.

MFA vs. NYC edited by Chad Harbach – This book was an impulse buy – not part of any “pile.” I have an MFA background, I live in New York and I’m really interested in its publishing industry. This book of essays is right up my alley.

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman - I don’t know if it’s cheating to include my current read. I loved 2011′s The Dovekeepers so much(read before I became a blogger) that I just had to request Hoffman’s latest. I can’t say I’m enjoying it as much as her previous work, but Hoffman’s writing is always something to behold.

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostovo - This is another oldie I hope to get to. It’s over 600 pages but completely engrossing – or so I hear.

Fallout by Sadie Jones (April 29th)Somehow, I missed The Uninvited Guests, though I was completely drawn to it. I’m looking forward to Jones’ next attempt.

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue (April 1st) – I couldn’t handle Room but I think this one will be more digestible. Many thanks to Monika for sending this! I’m excited to read the book so many bloggers are talking about.

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas (August 19th)I only just saw a pitch for this in the S&S newsletter but the synopsis and writing style reminded me very much of Alex George’s A Good American. I’m expecting good things.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (May 6th) - another S&S upcoming title. The reviews for this one have been phenomenal.

The Quick by Lauren Oliver (June 17th) - I have Shannon to thank for cueing me into this one. An epic, sprawling tale set in Victorian London? Yes, please.

These aren’t pictured but I also hope to read: The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer, The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenburger, Stoner by John Williams and Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, a new Chris Bohjalian coming out this summer.

Happy Spring everyone! What’s on your TBR?

The Mapmaker’s Daughter

mapmaker's daughter

I first agreed to take on The Mapmaker’s Daughter after reading a glowing blurb from Mitchell James Kaplan, whose book By Fire, By Water I was swept away by. Both books are about the existential tension that occurs when religious faith must be compromised to save lives.

Because I’d read Kaplan’s book, I knew Laurel Corona’s would trod similar territory -15th century Spain before and during the Inquisition. But Corona does something Kaplan doesn’t – something ambitious, and impressive and unprecedented in my historical fiction experience. She probes not one culture and faith but three, straddling Judaism, Islam and Christianity, pitting them against each other before joining them together, blurring the lines somehow without crossing them. In fact, she navigates them as effortlessly as an acrobat.

Our heroine, Amalia, must venture into all of these religious realms as she decides what’s best for her family. She dapples in each – first because she must and then because she has a genuine respect for and warmth towards another religion. But through it all she holds fast to her spiritual identity as a Jewess, raising her daughter steadfastly in the same fashion, even as they mingle in these other worlds.

This reading experience was immersive and compelling – especially because I didn’t agree with all of Amalia’s choices. As an Orthodox Jew I had an almost visceral reaction when Amalia took up with Jamil, her Muslim lover. Relations between Jews and non-Jews are forbidden in our culture and I couldn’t reconcile how she could engage that way, while working so hard to keep her faith. There would be even greater challenges ahead, though, and it would be then that Amalia would show herself. How I cheered, even as she made decisions that broke her heart; how I rooted for her and Eliana as they sought to find a home for themselves.

Corona writes with tremendous empathy and scope – creating characters you will feel utterly invested in and admiring of. This is a terrific addition to the fiction on Inquisition-plagued Spain – perhaps the most compassionate take on the era. Pick this one up now during Women’s History Month and journey with Amalia and Eliana as they find untold strength to carry on.

Fallen Beauty

fallen beauty

In Fallen Beauty, her third literary-themed novel, Erika Robuck takes on the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. As is her custom, she pairs her with a fictional character, using parallel narratives to tell both of their stories.

In my past reviews of Robuck’s work, I took issue with her putting literary figures alongside fictional people. I felt that her characters – made up in service of her story – actually imposed on the true-life people I wanted to get to know. I couldn’t shake my aversion to this tactic the first time I encountered it in Hemingway’s Girl, yet I wanted to read Call Me Zelda. Same with this third effort. It seems I will read anything Robuck writes, even if I don’t agree with her choices.

It’s hard not to want to read Robuck. She writes with passion and zest and flavor. She imbibes the mood and tone of her time period. And perhaps most impressively, she channels the figures she writes about – their controversial, flamboyant and stirring personalities – so that they come through in her narrative. She even writes flamboyantly, using melodramatic language that would seem overdone but is actually in keeping with what she aims to be doing.

Even this tactic I didn’t particularly like, of having the actual and the fictional join hands works, finally, in Fallen Beauty. I think it’s because Laura and Millay (or Vincent as she is known) don’t actually meet until about 100 pages in. Robuck waits to have them cross paths, until she’s developed them separately as characters. She’s never done this before – refrained from using her signature card – and it works to her benefit here. Because Millay and Laura don’t immediately tread on each other’s toes, the reader can appreciate the initiation of their journeys and meet them on their own terms. Our impressions of them are influenced only by words the author has used to draw them.

And as I said Robuck is an excellent illustrator of character. Millay is tempestuous and captivating, virulent and all-consuming. Laura, a single mother with an unfortunate past, is formidable and discerning, as she must be to cope with her circumstances. The infusion of one into the life of the other – these completely opposing temperaments colliding – makes for quite the literary experiment – and a richly layered one at that.

Kudos to Robuck for the added veneer she’s given this novel. She’s developed just as much as her characters over the years!

Many thanks to New American Library, a division of Penguin, for my review copy!

The Lowland

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Some of you may have noticed that I’ve been in a bit of a blogging slump lately – or maybe I’ve just been really busy. My reading has slowed down considerably but that’s okay – it’s even more rewarding when you finally finish a book you’re reading slowly.

Such was the case with The Lowland. Lahiri has a graceful, measured writing style but tells her story a bit lethargically. She takes her time with it, milks it, goes backs to moments that the reader thought had been covered already. (She does this with particular frequency towards the end and I found it jarring.) I got a bit impatient with the slow pace – descriptive passages that enhanced whatever setting we were in but did nothing to move the story. Also, plot points were repeatedly established – the same essential conclusion, written again in another way for the sole sake of using different language. Writers do this – they get caught up in the prettiness of their prose, in how they can spin words to arrive insights. Lahiri revels in that ability here, but I saw through it – wanted her to be plainer and faster.

Still, as many have said, there is a story here – one of love, loss and abandonment that spans decades and generations. If you like a tale of scope and political intrigue pick of The Lowland – just be prepared for the carefully dolled out prose.

Under the Wide and Starry Sky Review and Giveaway

wide starry sky

Nancy Horan is widely recognized for Loving Frank, her novel about the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. When I read it a few years ago, I was instantly captivated by the figure she portrayed. And though there was a wide middle swath that felt staid I was so shocked by the ending I can remember staring open-mouthed at the words. I still think about it – brutal, dramatic and unexpected as it was – because it speaks volumes about race, position and what we think we know about others.

So I was eager to read this next effort – so eager that I read the book the moment I received it in December. Again, Horan explores the life and love of a famous figure – this time Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote classics like Treasure Island and Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Horan places joint focus on him and Fanny, the woman who became his wife. We follow the two of them as they sail the high seas, support each other in their writing and nurse each other’s ailments. This is a pleasant read that does what it sets out to do: illuminate the personalities of a literary couple.

The beginning of Under the Wide and Starry Sky (isn’t that such an alluring title?) brims with energy. We meet Fanny, abandoned by her cheating husband, as she cares for her dying child. Then, once she travels to Europe, we meet Stevenson who is so impetuous and unpredictable he’ll climb through a window rather than use a door. What drives the first part of the book is romantic tension, as Stevenson woos the much-older Fanny and she does all she can to resist him. But afterwards, when they are married and settled, things die down and the book becomes almost monotonous in its plot: the couple travel from one place to another in an effort to restore Stevenson to health and he writes doggedly through it all.

Much of this – the travel, the sickness, the writing – could’ve been distilled I thought. Horan is versed in the chronicle of their lives because she’s done a formidable amount of research – but of course part of the author’s craft is knowing what should be shared. My thought is that not all of it should have been – certainly not every sojourn and illness throughout the years. And it’s because she doesn’t boil down to the essentials that the prose starts to blur together and narrative motion halts. The same condition that plagued Loving Frank – a bogged down middle section – reappears here and lasts longer. It bleeds, in fact, into the book’s final section, which takes place in the tribal land of Samoa.

Perhaps it comes down to editing – a keener eye knowing when the story is moving and when it isn’t any longer. Horan can write and for that fact alone I’ll be reading what she does next. I just hope the narrative energy doesn’t fizzle out.

Thanks to the publisher, I have one copy of Under the Wide and Starry Sky to give away! To enter, just comment below expressing interest. Winner will be randomly drawn and notified by email. 

Many thanks to TLC Book Tours and Ballantine Books for my advanced reader’s copy!