Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Written in the mid 1800’s the book takes place in 1600’s Puritan Boston. Hester Prynne, having come to America several years prior without her husband, is being publically punished for having a child from an adulterous relationship.  She is forced to wear an “A” on her breast to mark her sin, among other punishments.  She refuses to name the man, who we quickly ascertain is the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale.  Also at the scene is Hester’s long-lost husband in disguise as Roger Chillingworth. He procures a promise from Hester not to reveal his true identity and quickly begins a mission to uncover the identity of her partner and wreck revenge upon him.

Through the years, the child, Pearl, grows into an unusual, “impish sprite” and Hester begins to find her way in a shunning society as a seamstress.  Hester adorns her “A” with gold thread and much ornate embroidery. (In my book club discussion we liked to say she “bedazzled” it.)  Dimmesdale punishes himself for his sin and becomes physically ill. Roger Chillingworth, a self-educated, intelligent man, re-invents himself as a doctor and moves in with Dimmesdale in order to treat his illness.  Chillingworth quickly figures out that Dimmesdale was Hester’s illicit partner and set about to ruin mental and physical well-being.

This book of classic literature is rife with symbolism, foreshadowing, and lectures on morality.  Hester’s character confused and delighted me.  I was confused as to why she would allow both of the men in her life to remain in secret while she is so openly reviled.  However, her in-your-face independence with her “bedazzled A” and making her own way in a male-dominated society, made me stand up and cheer.

There is also quite a message of true repentance.  One can see Hester’s peace of mind from having her sin out in the open and taking her punishment with humility versus the agony that Dimmesdale endures while hiding his sin. And then there is Chillingworth and his own brand of evil; he becomes a grizzled old man, showing us that Satan does not support his minions.

All of that being said, you must ‘get into the lingo’ of Hawthorne.  There were times when I would float back up to present day and find the book so melodramatic that I would get the giggles. Hester’s soliloquy in the forest would make a great piece for high-school drama class.  All in all, a “must-read” for any literature aficionado.

4 Stars (Rated PG for adult themes)

Friday, January 25, 2013

Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos

A devoted city dweller, Cornelia Brown surprised no one more than herself when she was gripped by the sudden, inescapable desire to leave urban life behind and head for an idyllic suburb. Though she knows she and her beloved husband, Teo, have made the right move, she approaches her new life with trepidation and struggles to forge friendships in her new home. Cornelia's mettle is quickly tested by judgmental neighbor Piper Truitt. Perfectly manicured, impeccably dressed, and possessing impossible standards, Piper is the embodiment of everything Cornelia feared she would find in suburbia. A saving grace soon appears in the form of Lake. Over a shared love of literature and old movies, Cornelia develops an instant bond with this warm yet elusive woman who has also recently arrived in town, ostensibly to send her perceptive and brilliant son, Dev, to a school for the gifted.

Marisa de los Santos is a genius in developing characters which we love and cheer for.  The story is told in the voices of Cornelia, Piper and Dev and by the end of the book you feel that they have become your close friend and you are truly rooting for them. She portrays what is means to "belong" to another person. The book is gripping…I dare you to read 50 pages and then be able to walk away and leave it.

5 Stars (Rated PG-13 for brief sex and language)

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

All This Talk of Love by Christopher Castellini

I received this as an advance copy from This is a continuation of the story Castellini told in “A Kiss From Maddalena”.  I think you could read this book without having read the prior one; however you will appreciate this book more if you have read it.

Fifty years ago, Antonio went to Italy to find a wife and brought Maddalena back with him.  They have never been back to their small town of St. Ceclia and now their daughter is planning a trip for the whole family to visit the homeland. However; Maddalena refuses to go.

Beneath the surface this is a beautiful book about family loyalty, what we ‘owe’ each other and what we do FOR each other.  Charming, tender story. 

4 stars (some sex and language)

A Vintage Affair by Isabel Wolff

Mel’s confession: I love fashion.  I love watching “Project Runway”, I do not miss an episode. I love watching the creative process turn into beautiful garments.  If I had a different body and a different wallet I would have closets of beautiful, designer clothes. So that is why I was drawn to this book.

After years of working in the vintage clothes department of Sotheby’s Phoebe decides to open her own vintage clothing store. With her knowledge and love of couture she quickly becomes a hit with the women of London. 

In acquiring merchandise for her store she meets and befriends Therese, a lovely older French woman, who sells her many lovely, vintage pieces. But it is through the story of the little blue coat that Therese will not sell that helps Phoebe come to grips with her own past.

For chick lit, this book concentrates more on the story than the romance, which I appreciated. The description of the clothing was exquisite and made me wish there were pictures. The story of the “little blue coat” was a surprising and wonderful addition to the story.  I loved it!

4 stars (some sex and language)

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Secrets of Eden by Chris Bohjalian

“There!” says Alice Hayward to Reverend Stephen Drew, after her baptism and before she goes home to be killed by her husband George, who then goes on to kill himself, leaving 15 year old Katie an orphan.  Stephen is puzzled by Alice’s cryptic response to her baptism in light of the event that ensued and suffers from a crisis of faith.

Enter, Heather Laurent, a famous author with books about angels.  She is drawn to Stephen and wants to try to help him with his crisis. Having suffered a childhood that mirrors Katie Hayward, she also tries to counsel her and help her through the mayhem in her life.

But then, the state’s attorney figures out that George Hayward may not have killed himself and that Alice was hiding secrets that only her Reverend knew…

The book is narrated in turn by Stephen Drew, the State’s Attorney, Heather Laurent and Katie Hayward.  Bohjalian does an excellent job of fine-tuning the story, it is almost as if he is turning a die each time the narrator changes and we see the story from a different facet. Even though I figured out “who did it” halfway through the book, there were still surprises at the end.  Really enjoyed it!

4 Stars (Rated PG-13; for some mild sex and a couple of F-bombs)

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

This book is a novel about an anthology of poetry. Paul Chowder is a “sometime-published” poet.  He is currently struggling to write an introduction to a collection of poetry featuring ‘rhyme’.  This could be dry and boring and “Oh-look-at-me,-see-how-much-I-know-about-poetry” kind of book.  But somehow, Mr. Baker makes it work.  There where just a few shorts passages that were dry and preachy.  For the most part this was delightful and highly enjoyable book.  And yes, I actually learned some things I did not know about poetry…like Iambic pentameter.  We all know that the ‘pentameter” part means 5 beats to the line, but did you know that “Iambic” refers to the manner of stressing the beginning of the line?

A few of my favorite lines:
“Let’s have a look at this poem. Here it is going down. You can tell it’s a poem because it’s swimming is a little gel pack of white-space.”
“Each one-syllable word becomes a heavy, blunt chunk of butter that is melted and baked into the pound cake of the line”
And this delightful passage:
“One time, I remember, I was in a laundromat. It was a laundromat in Marseilles, France. “Marseilles.” Do you hear that? It’s a mattress of a word, with a lot of spring to it. “Marseilles.” I was in there, doing my laundry, and I look over, and there’s this guy there, this little guy. He was kind of pale, pasty looking. But moving with a methodical grace. And I said, Ed? And he looked up slowly. He nodded, cavernously. I said Ed Poe? And he said, Mm-hm. And then he peered closely at me. He said, Paul? Paul Chowder? And I said, Yes. Ed! How are you doing? Been a long time. He nodded. I said, I see you’re folding some underpants there.

He said, Yes I am. Doing my laundry, You?

I said I’m doing my laundry, too. And I mean, if you’re going to do your laundry, this place is probably as good as or better than any place I can think of. Marseilles, France. Or “Fronce,” as we say.

And I said, Can I venture to ask how the poetry’s going?

He said, It’s going pretty well. I wrote a poem, and I got paid for it, and it was in the newspaper.

And I said, That’s fantastic. What’s it called?

And he said, It’s called “The Raven.”

And I said, Holy sh**, Ed, “The Raven.” Great title. What’s it about?

And he said, It’s about a man who has a visit from a raven.

And I said, That sounds really promising. What does the raven stand for? Death and fate and horror and government wiretapping an stuff like that? And he just looked at me. He wasn’t about to explicate his poem for me. Which I understand. And I said, Well listen, take care. I grabbed my bag if laundry. I said, It’s been great seeing you. Stay happy. And he said, You too, it’s good seeing you. We waved again. Take care, bye-bye. Watch out for the bid swinging blade. And I walked out the door of the laundromat. Off down the street. And that was the time that I ran into Edgar Allan Poe.”

If you love poetry, as I do, you will love this book.

4 Stars (Rated PG-13; for some (few) vulgarities and a few F-words)

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Dragon House by John Shors

Iris Rhodes is a successful book review living in Chicago when she decides to give it all up to complete her father’s dream. Her seemingly distant father had been a soldier in the Vietnam War and went back to open a center for street children in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and was not able to complete it before his death.  At the pleading of his mother, Iris invites Noah, a man she remembers from childhood and a wounded Iraq war veteran to go with her.

Iris and Noah face their own demons and try to heal their wounds amid the innocence and beauty, the corruption and chaos of Vietnam.  Inspired by the street children she meets Iris walks in the footsteps of her father, a man whom Vietnam both shattered and saved.  Meanwhile, Noah slowly rediscovers himself by opening up to the love of others.

John Shors is a master storyteller. His prose are lyrical and bright, his characters well-developed and his plots engaging and exciting.  He writes about love and emotions as well as he writes action and adventure.  This book is a wonderful tale of redemption and the resilience of the human spirit.
5 Stars (Rated PG-13 for some violence)

Friday, January 4, 2013

Our Hearts Were Young and Gay: An Unforgettable Comic Chronicle of Innocents Abroad in the 1920’s by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough

None of Cornelia Otis Skinner's many accomplishments as actress or author came close to matching the phenomenal popularity of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, which appeared in 1942 and went through more than twenty printings a total of more than two million copies. A collaboration with her former Bryn Mawr classmate Emily Kimbrough, the memoir charmingly and quite comically details the pair's youthful trip abroad two decades earlier, when they were almost out of their teens and on their own for the first time. From its very beginning, the flavor of the work is deliciously evident, as Emily surprises a naked man in his hotel room before the girls have even embarked. From Montreal to London to Paris, episode follows upon episode, absurdity upon absurdity: shipwreck in the Saint Lawrence River, an astonishingly funny game of deck tennis, Emily hitting a drowning man with a deck chair, Cornelia breaking out with the measles, both girls oblivious to the ill repute of the house in Dieppe where they found lodging one night with sightseeing and romantic yearnings coming in between.

This nostalgic and innocent book is a marvelous voyage, so bright with life and comedy and an air of happy coincidence that it's very hard to put down, and nearly impossible to forget.  DELIGHTFUL!!!

5 Stars (Rated G)

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Lawgiver by Herman Wouk

I am a longtime lover of Herman Wouk’s books. Who didn’t love the sweeping saga of “The Winds of War”, “War and Remembrance” and “The Caine Mutiny” or the charm of “Marjorie Morningstar”?  So last week, when browsing at Barnes and Noble, I saw the name Herman Wouk, opened the cover to read the flap, and saw the name “Moses” I knew I had to read this book.

Mr. Wouk states that he always wanted to write a book about Moses, but it wasn’t until his 97th year (last year) that he decided to write a book about how hard it was to write a book about Moses.  This is an epistolary novel containing email, memos, text messages and Skypes of a group of people making a movie about Moses.  The producer will not fund the movie without Mr. Wouk approving the screenplay.  So Mr. Wouk is a character in his own book (or a fictionalized version of himself).

It was an entertaining read.  I did like the way they spoke about Moses.  I certainly think they (or Mr. Wouk) had a better understanding of who Moses was than DeMille did.  I also loved the relationship between Mr. Wouk and his wife of 63 years.  I don’t think that part was fictionalized.

I am giving this book 5 stars, because of who the author is and the fact that he wrote it at 97.  Gotta applaud that!  

5 Stars (Rated PG)