Category Archives: Books I enjoy!

Saturday’s (late) Book: “My Brilliant Friend” by Ferrante

Connected! Naomi’s Photos

This is the second book in a row with a poor choice of cover. The picture of the bride and groom striding purposefully on a beach towards a white city, with little bridesmaids in tow is misleading. It reinforced my suspicion that the book was probably “chick lit” or at least followed the familiar stereotyped patterns of books (and movies!) depicting friendship between women.

Whatever adjectives one may decide to use in regards to this book, stereotypical cannot possibly be one of them.

The writing style is unusual. It’s raw, uneven, different and (most of the time!) made the book hard to put down.

In addition, the book is not only about a powerful bond between two girls that begins in childhood and lasts as they mature into adulthood.  It is also a bare-bones, often brutal look at the cruel cycle of poverty and lack of education. The book makes it very clear how difficult it is to break out of this cycle which seems bent on repeating itself. It may be about Naples in the 1950s but the social picture depicted could fit many other times and locations.

As a teacher, I was very interested in the detailed descriptions of the girls’ education or lack of education, as the case may be. However, when the same level of detail was devoted to the wedding of one of the two girls, I found it rather tedious.

This book is the first one of a series. At first, I thought I would move straight on to book two as I was so intrigued by the book. Yet by the time I got to the end I decided that a change would be welcome and moved on to reading other things.

I DO recommend reading this book but I don’t think I will watch the series if it comes our way. The descriptions in the book are vivid enough for me!

Saturday’s Book: The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

The 35th cat?
Naomi’s Photos

This book truly took me by surprise.

I was concerned that the book would be lurid and make me feel like I was reading the tabloids. The picture on the front cover of a woman with a knife in her hand and the quote on the back cover (“Dishes the dirt on what it’s really like being one of many wives”) did not seem encouraging.

In fact, the only reason I began the book was that it sort of fell into my lap.

I’m so glad I read it! The beginning part kept me a bit “wobbly” at first but that didn’t last long and I happily read all 606 pages!

Ebershoff not only cleverly weaves two main storylines together, but he also moves the plot forward by presenting many points of view, expressed in a wide variety of formats – personal diaries, letters, newspaper articles, court documents, research materials and more. I felt I was getting a much richer picture of the unfolding events.

One narrative is from the present day, involving a secret polygamous Latter-Day Saints sect called “The Firsts”, and a murder mystery. The other narrative follows the life of Ann Eliza Young, one of Brigham Young’s multitude of wives who left the fold and waged a crusade against polygamy. Her life story is told along with the origin story of the Mormon religion.

This is a work of fiction though not quite a historical novel. It’s important to read the end notes to understand more about which information is based on research and which parts are total fiction.  Ann Eliza was most certainly a real person!

Besides the issue of polygamy,  the depiction of a leader demanding blind commitment to every word, defining every doubt or disagreement as treason, of demanding one thing from his followers while setting himself above the rules is, unfortunately, an issue that is very much alive today. There is a powerful scene in the book in which Brigham Young uses his clever rhetorical skills to turn the tables on those who voice concerns over his unethical behavior, making them feel guilty for even having such impure thoughts. Such behavior did not die with Brigham Young…

As they say, don’t judge a book by its cover (or it’s back cover)!

Saturday’s Books by Neil Gaiman and David Sedaris

Fantasy and fantastic birds… Naomi’s Photos

It seems that while I was waiting for the weekend to write about the Neil Gaiman book I finished reading another book…

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

I try to read at least one “young adult” book a year and Neil Gaiman is always a good choice. As a language teacher, I delight in his use of language!

I must admit that this one is a bit more predictable than  “The Graveyard Book” , which I thought was better, but it is still a good book.

One of Gaiman’s specialties is weaving teen-angst themes into fantasy books. Despite the fact that the main characters in this book are not teenagers (in their 20s, it seems) teenagers can easily identify with them. I won’t give you any spoilers related to the fantasy part but basically this book is about the introvert kid who never “fit in”, felt embarrassed by his father, lacked self-confidence who learns to believe in himself.

It’s good for everyone to be reminded of these issues, particularly if you happen to teach teenagers, which I do!

Behind the mask…
(Naomi’s Photos)

“When You Are Engulfed in Flames” by David Sedaris

I’ve been reading short stories by Sedaris in the New Yorker Magazine for years and have heard Sedaris read stories of his on This American Life podcast many times. However, it is the first time I have read an entire book by Sedaris, which is actually a collection of short stories.

I was a bit worried because there is a big difference between enjoying a short story by an author from time to time and reading a bunch of them in a row. I thought it would become too repetitive and that I would lose interest.

That didn’t happen.

There’s something unique about his style, I don’t know if I can explain it. The “back cover reviews” includes one that is relevant “This is a man who could capture your heart and lift your spirits while reading out the ingredients of a rice cake”. I don’t about “lift your spirits” but the rest is true. He seems to start by telling the most mundane, simple things he notices about people and places, his unusual family and his life with his partner and you wonder what IS this about. Then suddenly he connects all with thought-provoking observations about life, society, racism, relationships (in general and sexual ) and more.

I wouldn’t say I would describe many of the stories as “funny” like they say on the cover, though the story that connected “Hitchcock-like birds” and music from the sixties was “laugh out loud” funny. Though I do chuckle more when I hear him read aloud the stories.

 

Saturday’s Book: “About Grace” by Anthony Doerr

Faded glory…
Naomi’s Photos

This is a “Yes, but…” kind of book.

The “YES” part is pretty easy to describe:

  • Yes, it IS the same author that wrote “All the light we cannot see” . I enjoyed that book.
  • Yes, the style of writing is unique, the descriptions are rich and full of attention to detail. I’m sure that if someone wanted to adapt the book into a film, the visuals  would aspire  would be crystal clear.
  • The first part is great.
  • The author is skilled at ensuring you don’t jump ship mid way, even though the thought of quitting seemed quite attractive throughout the long middle section of the book.

BUT…

  • The plot that IS there REALLY requires you to suspend belief.
  • There’s very little plot and it moves slowly.  SLOWLY. The author must have wanted readers to truly have the sensation of time moving slowly…
  • It felt like the book was more about style than substance.

In short, I enjoyed the first part of the book. I did not succumb to temptation and quit because of the magnetism of the style and a desire to find out what really happened to Grace.

If this book was ever adapted into a movie I wouldn’t go to see it.

Saturday’s Book & “Reading Crisis”: “Hamilton” by Chernow

So many books… Naomi’s Photos

 

I can’t recall ever being in this kind of “bookish crisis”.

I have been interested in the book “Hamilton” since the whole Hamilton hysteria began. While I haven’t had the pleasure of attending a theatre production I certainly am familiar with the songs, the storyline and know a lot about the musical.

When the book actually landed on my table, I eyed it worriedly for several weeks. It’s a HUGE paperback edition. There are 820 pages though the actual text is only 731 pages. Believe me, the length of the book isn’t the issue, I have read longer books.  It is simply physically unwieldy. I assume this is the result of publishers wanting the print to be of a size that people over 50 would be able to read (I do appreciate that!) but try holding that in bed, or curled up on the sofa, or over lunch at a safe distance from your plate (in an upright position).

As someone who always says that a book is about the words, the story, the feeling and the message, irrelevant of t the physical form in which you enjoy it (printed, digital, audio) I felt very guilty about being dismayed at the shape of the book. I even considered buying a digital version but it did seem a waste of money considering that I actually have a printed copy on my table.

BIG… Naomi’s Photos

My bookish crises continued in the strangest manner after I began reading the book.

The book is really interesting and very well written. I loved it that the author chose to begin his book with the character of Hamilton’s wife, Eliza. In fact, the author pays a lot of attention and respect to women and their role in Hamilton’s life and in the American Revolution.

I found the part about Hamilton’s early life in the Caribbean (and his parents’ lives) fascinating as I really knew very little about those islands at that time, not to mention the slave trade related to the sugar commerce on those islands.  It was mind-boggling to read how quickly the brilliant Hamilton reached the epicenter of things within a fairly short time after arriving in the US.

As someone who is interested in geneology, I was also very interested in how the author presented family information with incomplete data – relying on sources from the period but clearly stating what is known for sure and what is an “educated guess”.

The American revolution was a lot messier and precarious than what I remembered from my school days in Massachusetts and I have to admit (or confess?) that there is a great deal I didn’t know or didn’t remember – the initial goal of the revolution wasn’t complete independence as a new country, the assistance of the French was extremely significant or the story of the Benedict Arnold’s wife.

It was also a revolution that spanned 8 years.

At page 151 the end of the revolution is not in sight.

I found myself interested in the book while I was reading it, but reading it less and less.

And less and less.

And then not reading Hamilton but not reading anything else because I’m reading Hamilton.

Naomi not reading any books?

AARGH!!!

So, on August 1st I officially stopped reading Hamilton and am now close to completing another book.

There.

I admitted it.

May you be more patient than me, it really is a good book.

 

 

Saturday’s Book: “The Story of San Michele” by Munthe

In Axel Munthe’s home, San Michele
Naomi’s Photos

This book “took me” on an exciting, wild journey with the author and I enjoyed it immensely. It’s always full of life,  fascinating, funny at times or quite sad and moving at others.

While the book is presented as Munthe’s memoirs, describing his time as a young Swedish doctor who studied under Charcot in Paris at the end of the 19th century, his work in Italy, various wild adventures and his love affair with the Isle of Capri and the home he built there, San Michele, it should not be seen as a factual biography.

According to the Wikipedia entry about the man and the book, it seems Munthe omitted all sorts of things (such as the fact that he was NOT single and even had children…)  and may certainly have exaggerated some of his adventures. Nevertheless, there is no dispute regarding the fact that while Munthe earned a great deal of money from the rich he constantly used his skills as a doctor to serve the poor without any remuneration and was a great lover of animals.

In Axel Munthe’s home at San Michele
Naomi’s Photos

Frankly, Munthe was a wonderful storyteller and it doesn’t bother me that the lines between what actually happened and what he would have liked to have happened were blurred. The book is a great read!

Once again, as I have said before, I’m “book lucky”.  I recently visited Munthe’s house (well worth visiting!). On returning home I discovered that the book is already in the public domain and is available for free download on various platforms. It’s great to read a book I enjoy that ties in with my trip like that!

Saturday’s Book: “84 Charing Cross Road” by Helene Hanff

Different lives behind different windows can connect…
Naomi’s Photos

What a BIG SMILE of a book!

That may be a grammatically incorrect statement but it is the best way to describe how reading the book made me feel.

I read this quite short book, composed entirely of an exchange of letters, in 24 hours. I began it before bedtime (and turned off my reading lamp rather later than usual) and completed it as soon as I got home from work the next day.

I think I smiled the whole time.

The correspondence begins shortly after the end of World War Two and is between the actual author, who presents herself as a poor American screenwriter and author, living alone in New York and an Antiquarian bookseller in Charing Cross Road, London. The touching, engaging and often humorous correspondence spans 20 years.

I  don’t want to give too many details in case you haven’t read the book ( I’m sure many have somehow I missed it!) as it’s better to discover the characters’ lives as you read, but I also found it interesting to be reminded of an era when people traveled less and there was no Internet. Helen has no idea how to “translate” pounds into dollars and sends actual cash in envelopes (we actually used to do that for years, too!!!). More than that, it was a revelation to her how difficult times were for the British in the years right after the war ended!

Sometimes,  “sharing” (via a book) a friendship between people from different countries who have never met, is just what a person needs to read and be reminded of.

Particularly so when one takes into account the fact that I learned of this book AND was lent a copy by a friendly colleague whom I lent the book “Address Unknown”, which is another book composed of letters.

It’s always good to talk to people about books!

Enjoy!

 

 

Saturday’s Book: “The Leavers” by Lisa Ko

Journeys…
Naomi’s Photos

This is a good book.

A sad one and an important one very relevant to our world today.

Vivid, clear, engaging and moving.

The book is told from the point of view of the two main characters and in their “voices”. The tale moves between these voices.

There is the story of a young Chinese woman with an individualistic streak, who dreams of making her own way in life, forgoing the future mapped out for her. We learn how she arrives in the USA, saddled with debt to those who brought her there, how she is taken advantage of as a worker, striving to pay off these debts. Her son is born in the US…

The other voice is that of the son. One day, when he was in the fifth grade, his mother vanishes. No one knows what happened to her. No one can explain to him why his mother abandoned him and his whole life turned upside down. He is adopted by well-meaning people who bring him into an environment with no diversity, he is the only who looks different despite his new American name.  The feeling of exhaustion arising just from being so conspicuous every single day wherever he goes is just one of the several issues that could be discussed while reading the book.

What happens to each of these characters unfolds as you read on.

I believe the book would be even better if it were a little shorter – more focused. I found that when the story was told from the point of view of the son it was a bit too long, belaboring details that were clear. I did not have this issue during the parts told by the mother.

I certainly recommend the book.

Saturday’s Book: “Pompeii” by Robert Harris

The earth can move…
Naomi’s Photos

There may all sorts of luck in this world but I am certainly a “book – lucky” kind of person.

I’ve hit the jackpot again!

The book Pompeii was waiting for me in the “readers for readers” corner outside the local library. Slightly water damaged but otherwise in good condition.

It just so happens that I plan to be in Pompeii, Italy NEXT WEEK!

This is not an academic book nor a travel guide-book! Harris managed to create an “absolutely-can’t-put-down” book full of action, suspense, and surprising turns even though the end is clear and known in advance. That volcano is going to erupt and the author knows you know it.

But the people in the story don’t know it.

And the people seem very real indeed.

I’ve read a book by Harris before, he researches the history behind his fictional books meticulously. Harris brings to life the people, the sights, sounds, and smells (it seems many think stank in those days, despite the Roman baths!) of Pompeii in its heyday, In addition, the story is told from the point of view of “The Aquarius” – the title held by an engineer in charge of an aqueduct.  I feel as if I’ve been personally introduced to the awe-inspiring wonders of the Roman Empire’s water system. To think that rich citizens back then could have RUNNING WATER in their homes, some even had hot and cold taps (pipes led to their homes), a version of toilets and swimming pools in the FIRST CENTURY AD is mind-boggling when you think about running water around the world for the centuries that followed…

If all that wasn’t enough, I really enjoyed Harris’ use of language. The descriptions are rich and vivid.

In short – this was certainly a book to “get lost” in.

Great book!

Saturday’s Book: “Address Unknown” by Kressman Taylor

Just the two of us…
Naomi’s photos

A tiny book with a BIG punch!

Wow!

I found the slender little book ( I believe the English version is only 54 pages long!) in Hebrew among my late father’s books. As a rule, I don’t read books in Hebrew that were translated from English (or vice versa) but I am fascinated by literary uses of letters and I did it have it right there in my hand…

This book is interesting in so many ways.

It’s constructed as an exchange of letters between two best friends and business partners, who originally immigrated from Germany to the United States. One of the partners, Martin,  decides to return to Berlin with his family, in 1933, while his dear Jewish friend Max remains in San Francisco.  They need to correspond because of their shared business and they want to correspond because they miss each other.

Their early letters begin by letting us in on their shared background and strong connection.

But then the letters change. The rise of Nazism and all that goes with it comes into sharper and sharper relief through the letters as Martin adopts the rhetoric of the new movement and regime.

THEN something happens.

THEN the letters become something much more than letters!

I won’t spoil it for you. I read it in an hour and that’s because I read more slowly in Hebrew.

WOW!

Making a statement…
Naomi’s Photos

This little book is also very interesting because of its back story.

Kressman Taylor isn’t the real name of the author in the usual sense. The publishers of Story Magazine in 1938 thought that such a powerful tale and such an important message would be far less effective with a woman’s name on the byline. Therefore the name Katherin was scrapped and her maiden name and last name were used.

The story was an incredible sensation, reprinted by the Reader’s Digest and then published as a book.

Sadly, the book is every bit as important to read today as it was all those years ago.

Absolutely worth reading!