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Susie's Staff Picks
Friday, November 8, 2013
Expectations of trust, loyalty, and unconditional love between parent and child are put to the ultimate test in William Landay's "Defending Jacob." The comfortable, suburban lives enjoyed by Assistant District Attorney Andy Barber, his wife Laurie, and 14 year old son Jacob are shattered when the lifeless body of Jacob's middle school classmate Ben Rifkin is discovered in a Newton, Massachusetts park. Evidence implicating Jacob Barber as the suspected killer continues to mount, and it isn't long before his father is removed from his role as prosecutor for the case. The arrest of their son devastates the parents, and Andy and Laurie struggle desperately to believe in Jacob's innocence while the strength of their once solid marriage begins to erode. The inevitable murder charge isolates the family within their own neighborhood and community. The phone and the doorbell stop ringing, friends withdraw, and strangers whisper. The couple find themselves feeling as though they are being judged as accomplices to the actions for which their son has been accused. As the story of defending Jacob unfolds and the teenager heads to trial, Andy becomes obsessed with a plan to reveal a known child molester as the true suspect, Laurie becomes a shell of the vibrant woman she used to be, and Jacob withdraws further into himself.
For readers who enjoy a crime novel with riveting courtroom drama, William Landay's rendition will not disappoint. The once upon a time prosecutor, Andy Barber, finds himself in the witness chair facing Neal Loguidice: the over enthusiastic Assistant District Attorney who "stole" Andy's job. The taut writing, excellent dialogue, and dramatic plot development lead to a stunning ending, and the book is literally difficult to put down. There are plenty of discussion points promising good reasons for book clubs to gather or friends to linger over dinner. Some of the provocative questions raised ask how far a parent should go to protect a child; suggest the existence of a "murder gene" that could be a brilliant defense or assure an automatic life sentence; and explore how well a parent can actually know a child who is brought up on today's social media that exists far beyond the shadow of a parent's watchful eye.
Not much can be found negative about Landay's writing. Since he was the gatekeeper of his parents' hopes and dreams, maybe more insight into the secret life of Jacob, along with his feelings, would have been a bonus. In addition, the emotional distance between husband and wife takes away an opportunity for the two to have more discussion about the fate of their son. However, "Defending Jacob" is definitely a satisfying read, and in spite of its length of 400 plus pages, will leave the reader wishing for more.
Monday, September 16, 2013
Nora Eldridge dwells upon what she perceives as her unhappy, spinster life while she grieves the death of her beloved mother and teaches third grade at Appleton Elementary School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is the woman upstairs in Claire Messud's "The Woman Upstairs." The title of the book is actually a metaphor for a type of woman who, though she could live anywhere, is always there when you need her and is always there to help. She is forever kind, quiet, tidy, trusting, dependable, and agreeable. The woman upstairs is predictable and rarely deviates from the staleness of her routine. Such a woman describes Miss Eldridge.
When a young boy named Reza Shahid joins the third grade, his teacher is instantly under the spell of his charm and comes to think of him as the child she never had. Ultimately, Nora is introduced to Reza's Italian mother Sirena. The two women from different cultures embark upon a friendship cemented by their mutual love of the arts. Together, they rent a studio where they are free to explore their artistic interests and feed what is missing in their lives. For Nora, the "family affair" is complete when Sirena's husband Skandar enters the equation. The Lebanese professor has brought his family from Paris for the school year while he conducts research at Harvard.
The third floor art studio offers another translation for "the woman upstairs", and much of the story unfolds in this work space that comes alive with color, music, and light. Nora comes to depend on the family to give her own life purpose and meaning when they make her feel interesting and important. However, the fantasy she creates threatens to destroy the true version of her life as well as her glorified friendship with the Shahids.
A secondary thread to the story is the life of Nora's mother. While Nora admired her, she also pitied her for a failure to realize her own dreams due to more traditional life choices. Through the subsequent relationship with her father after her mother's death, the daughter comes to understand her mother more clearly as a person who could still teach her some valuable life lessons.
The strength of the story is in the telling. Messud is a lyrical writer. She creates a story that is spellbinding and irresistible in an eerie way. She does a masterful job exposing the raw emotions of Nora's character and making her loneliness palpable. However, the weakness of the story is also in the telling. The author's expression of the raw emotions is at times heavy, overwhelming, and redundant.
According to Messud, the "woman upstairs" is also invisible and does not make mistakes. However, Nora Eldridge is determined to make herself visible to the Shahids, and in the process, she makes some unforgettable mistakes.
Wednesday, July 17, 2013
A crippled hospital, an orphaned young girl, and two heroic doctors provide the axis for a powerful story set in the war weary Russian province of Chechnya during a decade of tension that begins in 1994. "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" allows the profound despair saturating the intersecting lives of inhabitants in a small Chechen village to come alive one character, one page at a time. Author Anthony Marra also weaves a spellbinding, historical narrative to accompany his story of loss, betrayal, love, and hope.
Though Marra presents memories collected over a period of ten years, the actual story timeline highlights five days in 2004. When Akhmed witnesses the brutal kidnapping of his good friend and neighbor Dokka by Russian soldiers, Akhmed's future is forever changed and forever challenged. Driven by an inherit kindness and fear for Dokka's abandoned eight year old daughter Havaa, Akhmed rescues the young girl, along with her blue suitcase, from the grips of war threatening her very existence. They embark upon a journey to a spartan hospital unrecognizable as a place of healing except for the one remaining doctor: Sonja.
The intimidating Sonja is reluctant to shelter Havaa until Akhmed, himself a doctor, offers his assistance in exchange. Due to the overwhelming needs in the trauma and maternity wards, the suspicious doctor accepts the arrangement. She soon realizes his incompetence yet recognizes his compassion. And though she is addicted to amphetamines and suffers from hallucinations, Sonja is very gifted in her relentless pursuit to save lives. The overworked doctor is haunted in her personal life by the disappearance of her sister Natasha. She is determined to find her younger sister and take back what the war has stolen from her. Sonja's search for Natasha is a continual thread placed expertly throughout the book to possibly represent the aspect of loss experienced by so many ravaged by war in "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena." Amidst the insanity permeating the hospital, nurse Deshi offers some humor and temporary lightness.
Marra's compilation is thick with history, but the telling does seem necessary in order to give the plight of his characters the justice they deserve. Akhmed's friend and neighbor Khassan has written an almost 3000 page manuscript of Chechen history, and the author cleverly uses pieces from the masterpiece to establish a historical background. Khassan records the rich history of his homeland partly to escape the shame he feels due to the help his son Ramzan gives a brutal government denying Chechnya's sovereignty.
The book has many strengths. The characters are well developed; the devastating effects on the people of Chechnya struggling to survive a long, tedious second war are clearly illustrated; and the plot builds towards a satisfying conclusion without losing its focus. "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" is a phenomenal read.
Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Family. Few words evoke more emotion. In "The Burgess Boys", Elizabeth Strout introduces a trio of siblings who wear the scars of unpleasant childhood memories. Jim, Susan, and Bobby manage to keep the evidence of old wounds well hidden from each other by living relatively separate lives. There exists an obvious pecking order enhanced by sarcasm and tainted with a profound sadness permeating all areas of their lives. Change is put into motion when a nephew's unwise decision brings them together to solve a family crisis and confront the truth about the past.
Jim, the revered brother who has attained a notoriety of sorts, leaves the small, picturesque Shirley Falls, Maine for the vastness and opportunity in New York City. Bobby soon follows so that he may continue living in his brother's shadow. Meanwhile, Susan plants her timid roots in their hometown of Shirley Falls where immigration is changing the environment and giving rise to a growing racism.
The Burgess family embarks upon a journey towards self discovery and personal growth. A secret once held close is revealed, relationships are forever altered, and wounds of the heart are healed. The three face the reality that though impossible to change life left behind, it is possible to change the direction of the future with its moments waiting to be enjoyed.
A Memoir in Books (2003)
Wednesday, March 27, 2013
The transformative power of literary fiction is debated, challenged, and celebrated in "Reading Lolita in Tehran" by Azar Nafisi. A former professor of literature in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Nafisi uses prolific authors the likes of Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov to connect with students coming of age during a very tumultuous time in Iran's history. The Memoir illuminates the delicate fabric that is Iran by weaving a story set against the backdrop of a revolution and subsequent war with neighboring Iraq.
Though the book highlights those years between 1977 and 1997, chapter one begins in 1995. Shortly after the ceasefire with Iraq, Nafisi resigns from her latest teaching position at an Iranian university. She realizes a long held dream when she invites a select group of female students into her home each Thursday morning to discuss classic works of literature. For those few hours each week, the women meet to discuss books in many instances banned from bookstores as well as minds. They come together for a united purpose, and shed not only their veils but also their fears and inhibitions. The women share ideas, pastries, and laughter. Members of the reading group find they have much in common, and yet their individual struggles are also very different. "Reading Lolita in Tehran" allows readers into the lives of women living, and surviving, their own destinies in a country divided over the direction of its future.
As the memoir unfolds, Nafisi offers a better understanding of the Iranian culture and the fascinating women of Iran. She exposes the brightly colored lives hidden under the garments they wear. Reading fiction becomes an escape from the realities of their lives and offers hope for the future. The irony of the situation is that the women learn more about their true selves through the fictional lives of the fictional characters they read about. For instance, "Pride and Prejudice" helps them with issues related to love while "The Great Gatsby" and "Lolita" explore morality and freedom of choice.
The book proceeds to her teaching years at the University of Tehran and other universities in Iran. This is the stage where Nafisi introduces many of the men in her memoir. They are the students who deal with the unrest through demonstrations or sometimes acts of violence. They are the students who question her views and agree to put "The Great Gatsby" on trial in the classroom. They are also the students or fellow faculty members who respect her position and engage her in intellectual conversations. While the men written about in Nafisi's memoir may have enjoyed less restrictions than women to express themselves in public, the men of Iran also suffered and lost so much during the years of revolution and war while sacrificing for their families and for their country.
The novel covers a span of twenty years that sees the author returning to Iran after living and studying in the United States, undertaking marriage and raising of a family, forging friendships, being expelled from her teaching position at the University of Tehran, and remaining in Tehran when the war was fought so close to her home. The novel concludes with sorrowful goodbyes as Azar Nafisi returns to the United States and accepts a teaching position at John Hopkins University in Washington D.C.
"Reading Lolita in Tehran" is a story about culture and books as much as it is a history lesson about a land of mystery and intrigue that often seems so removed from our own experiences living in a democratic society. Yet, so many of the desires, fears, and goals are universally the same. The author can be heavy on the details, but the rewards of exercising reading patience make it well worth the effort. And rest assured that though sometimes long on words, Azar Nafisi tells a story which is nothing short of mesmerizing.
Wednesday, January 30, 2013
July 5th, 2012 was the fifth wedding anniversary for Nick Dunne and Amy Elliott Dunne. They did not celebrate the day together. In the bestseller "Gone Girl", author Gillian Flynn takes the classic elements of a good mystery novel and transforms the story into a psychological thriller by shining a provocative lens onto the intimate details of a fragile marriage. Circumstances trigger that which once was meant to be private and between husband and wife into tantalizing fodder for a hungry public.
The story begins in New York City where Nick and Amy work for different magazines, Amy as a quiz writer and Nick as an editor. A decline in the economy leads to the loss of their jobs. This event coincides with a change in family obligations, and the couple moves their lives to Nick's hometown of North Carthage, Missouri. Nick partners with his twin sister to open a bar, and Amy settles into the role of reluctant housewife governed by Midwest values and traditions.
The "normalcy" ends here when a single event catapults husband Nick into a dark journey of suspicion, fear, and uncertainty. As his life unravels, and boundaries of truth and fantasy are tested, the audience is left to wonder if Nick is actually the victimizer or the victim.
Readers are introduced to a colorful cast of supporting characters including eccentric parents, a faithful twin sister, old flame, new flame, a nosy neighbor, a flamboyant lawyer, and two "cops" borrowed from a formula detective novel. The media also steps in as a main character to manipulate public opinion based on perceptions of the present without any knowledge of the past. Lines of guilt and innocence are blurred by flashing cameras, waiting reporters, and daily news updates. The resulting headlines are recognized as being eerily similar to those highlighting actual events of today or those in recent memory. The power given information to put Nick and Amy's future in jeopardy is nothing short of scary.
The most intense lens of scrutiny is shined into the marriage. The layers of love between husband and wife are put on trial well outside of a courtroom, and many questions beg to be answered. How well do spouses actually know each other before committing a remaining lifetime to one another? Do men and women present a true self or assume a fictional identity for personal gain? Does love morph into something unrecognizable over time? When is the actual moment that stops the clock and ignites change? One can lift up the kitchen blinds each morning to the same landscape until one morning the view out the window may look different. What happened during the night?
"Gone Girl" assembles a collection of short stories and holds them together tightly with two well-developed characters in Nick and Amy. The "he said, she said" format is very effective as it builds towards a wild conclusion that keeps the reader turning the pages in anticipation. The novel is a true reading maze, and amidst each twist and turn, one fact remains crystal clear: the honeymoon is over!
Monday, December 24, 2012
The "Rules of Civility" is a delightful tale that parachutes the reader straight out of the Manhattan skyline into the lives of three friends poised to resurrect leftover dreams placed on hold during the era of the Great Depression. Author Amor Towles begins the story starring two best friends and one wealthy, eligible bachelor by igniting the promise of a hopeful future on the eve of New's Years 1938. While secretaries Katey Kontent and Eve Ross compete for the attentions of of the enigmatic Tinker Grey in the first months of 1938, fate intervenes to give Eve a grand opportunity to experience the oppulence and privilege of a new social standing. Meanwhile, Katey continues to represent the challenges of the twenty-something, unmarried working girl trying to make it in the Big Apple.
In Eve's land of opportunity, cigarettes are lit with silver plated lighters, olive studded martinis are refreshed breakfast through dinner, women in pearls enter limosines with doors held open by white gloved drivers, and elevator operators escort the social climbers up into Manhattan's skyscrapers.
In Katey's land of no opportunity, members of the hard working class chain smoke cigarettes in back alley jazz clubs, watered down drinks are ordered with greasy burgers, women in worn high heels run to hail taxi cabs, and at the end of the day, they drag their tired bodies home to tiny apartments.
Towles effectively captures the culture of the time period with references to Central Park, Madison Avenue, smoky jazz clubs, and the national past-times such as betting on horse racing, reading Manhattan society magazines, or collecting modern art. And as morning moves into night, he paints the picturesque image of a power grid illuminating a Manhattan sky at dusk.
The title of Towles' tale is no accident. A young George Washington, future first President of the United States, wrote "Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation." The morsels of advice become a textbook of sorts for Tinker Grey; especially as he applies Washington's rules to complex relationships he enjoys with the women in his life. While he confidently wears expensive suits and dines in French restaurants, the future waits patiently to reveal the consequences of his choices. The reader soon realizes that, ultimately, Tinker Grey has been keeping the secret of his own success.
Little fault can be found with the story, but the author does interject various characters who make a brief appearance before inexplicably disappearing from the storyline. Though he uses these brief encounters to more clearly illlustrate the multi-faceted aspects of American culture in the late 1930's, it seems a shame that these cameo characters are eliminated before we get to know them more intimately.
In spite of its few shortcomings, "Rules of Civility" treats the reader to a wonderful palette of characters set against a canvas of well spoken words. Towles effectively provides a vivid portrayal of a late 1930s New York. The pages come alive with the voices of the haves and the have nots along and destinies decided by opportunities taken and opportunities lost. One can only think that within the setting of such a tumultuous decade in American history, the title could have more aptly been called breaking the rules of civility.
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