Itty-Bitty Book Reviews

Looking for a few good books? Read on for my bite-size book reviews below. Links will take you to a longer review on this blog or on my Goodreads page.

Check back regularly for new additions.

FICTION

  • Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain: I’ll say right up front that this is not a book I thought I would love as much as I did, but I was mesmerized. Billy Lynn and Bravo Squad have been fighting in Iraq. Because of deeds done during a harrowing battle that claims the life of one of them, 19-year-old Billy is pronounced a hero. He and Bravo are plucked off the battlefield and sent on a tour around the US to drum up support for the war. The forward motion of the storyline takes place in one day — Thanksgiving — during a Dallas Cowboys football game with the men scheduled to be honored at the halftime show. Billy is a young Rabbit Angstrom caught in a Catch-22. It’s a story with big implications yet it feels very intimate.
  • Call Me Zelda, by Erika Robuck: I was lucky enough to win a signed copy of Call Me Zelda on Great New Books. This is a look at the private lives of a very public couple: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. What happens when the shiny veneer of their Jazz Age exploits are worn away, and they have to accept a new reality for themselves? Interwoven in Zelda and Scott’s unraveling is her nurse, Anna, who is in need of some healing of her own. Anna and Zelda begin a sympathetic friendship that lasts years as they both navigate the road to recovery.
  • Decline and Fall, by Evelyn Waugh: What makes this novel so fun is that the story is absurd and the characters are deeply flawed. They seem oblivious to their plight. They have a desire to get on the straight and narrow, but have no idea how to go about it.  Author Evelyn Waugh has a great sense of comedic timing. He continually tosses obstacles into his characters’ paths and lets them stumble around, getting deeper and deeper into trouble, all for our amusement. And amusing it is. I laughed out loud and won’t soon forget Paul Pennyfeather’s exploits.  If you enjoy the “comedy of manners” stylings of P.G. Wodehouse and Noel Coward, you’ll enjoy Decline and Fall.
  • The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, by Walter Mosley: Why should you read about an old man who, for most of the book, can’t escape his own mind? Because at the heart of this story are the universal truths of true love, fulfilling one’s destiny and validation. Ptolemy is the AARP version of Huckleberry Finn — a character you won’t soon forget.
  • Laura Lamott’s Life in Pictures, by Emma Straub: This is a grand story less about the glamorous side of the motion picture industry and more about one woman’s life in it, exploring universal themes of career, motherhood and friendship against the backdrop of the fantasy world of Hollywood.  If you enjoy 1920s Hollywood and stories about people reinventing themselves, pick up this novel.
  • The Lifeboat, by Charlotte Rogan: After the Empress Alexandria sinks in 1914, thirty-nine people are stuck in a lifeboat for twenty-one days. The novel opens with the ship already sunk and the lifeboats in place, waiting for rescue. Did the SOS call get sent or not? This was a good story, but if you want an amazing real-life lifeboat rescue, scroll down and read Unbroken!
  • The News from Spain, by Joan Wickersham: Each of the seven stories in this collection have the same title: “The News from Spain” and they are loosely connected on that premise. That news can be metaphorical (one twosome receives theirs via the wind rushing through a seashell on a beach) or realistic (a young bride is informed of her husband’s death in Madrid). The author takes us from eighteenth-century Prague to New York in the 1940s and feature a race-car driver, a teenaged girl, and a middle-aged bride, all the while pointing out that love — in all its forms — is flawed, uneven, and impossible to pin down.
  • TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann: Brilliant. What more can I say? The novel sweeps back and forth in time and points of view, but always with the theme of crossing the Atlantic between North America and Ireland. At first these seem like individual short stories, but Colum McCann weaves the stories together so expertly that coming upon the connection was a delightful a-ha moment. This will be on my Best Books of 2013 list for sure.
  • Travels with My Aunt, by Graham Greene: Henry Pulling is our narrator, but the story really revolves around his long-lost aunt Augusta, who he meets for the first time at his mother’s funeral. Until he meets his aunt, Henry has led a quiet life. Soon Aunt Augusta has encouraged him (forced may be a better word) to join her on the Orient Express to Turkey under what are, at first, unclear motives. By the time they arrive, poor Henry has had a run-in with the police, smoked pot, smuggled money and been offered sex in a brothel in Paris. Aunt Augusta is not just a stock character, there only to serve as Henry’s foil. She’s irreverent and shady and funny. Travels with My Aunt is a great read for newcomers to Graham Greene, or Greene fans who are in search of the full depths of this talented author.
  • 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas, by Marie-Helene Bertino: On Christmas Eve Eve, three main characters will cross paths at The Cat’s Pajamas, a faded jazz club. Madeline Altimari is a smart and independent nine-year-old girl who just wants to sing. Sarina is recently divorced and, despite her better judgment, accepts an invitation to a dinner party, where she knows she’ll run into her former flame. Then across town, at The Cat’s Pajamas, Lorca is about to lose his club. The fines from numerous violations of city codes are mounting and Lorca doesn’t have the money to pay his debts. Using these three point of view characters was a great choice because they span the age and experience spectrum, each looking to grab the brass ring and find some hope for the future. A very enjoyable and fun read!
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan: Jennifer Egan’s writing is masterful. She plays with time and point of view. The story runs like a Tom Wolfe novel where the characters are leading different lives, but they all intersect in some way. A character who seems peripheral will show up later as the plot linchpin. A Visit from the Goon Squad is certainly form over function. Be prepared to work to put all the puzzle pieces of this story together.

NONFICTION

  • At Home, by Bill Bryson: What Bryson neatly summarizes for us is that “the history of private life is a history of getting comfortable slowly.” Until the 18th century, even the word comfortable didn’t have the same meaning as it does today. The term was something you did for the wounded or distressed, not something that was part of everyday life. And Bryson goes out of his way to show us just how uncomfortable life was in those days. Suffice it to say that I will never again complain about doing laundry.
  • Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead, by Dr. Brene Brown:  This book is a game changer. I don’t say that lightly. In just the first few pages, I knew I was in for some eye-opening concepts. She debunks the myths that vulnerability is weakness, that we can’t protect ourselves from being vulnerable, that disengaging is one of the most damaging things we can do in any relationship — just to name a few. Brene Brown’s writing is accessible and illustrative. I like that she uses examples from her own life to exemplify her points. I have highlights and sticky notes on nearly every page!
  • The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life, by Ann Patchett: Here is an essential guide on writing from someone who knows what it means to live in another world of a story. I found her essay filled with useful suggestions and words of encouragement for writers. I will definitely be referring to it again and again.
    Ann Patchett on forgiveness: “It is the key to making art and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life. I believe that, more than anything else, this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.”
  • How Did You Get This Number, by Sloane Crosley: In this essay collection, Crosely is settling into her own as an adult and she’s reasssesing her life, wondering what it all means. Her experiences mirror the transition from fancy-free twentysomething to what-am-I-going-to-do-with-my-life thirty-something.  My favorite essay was the last, “Off the Back of the Truck,” a layering of a period in her life when she falls in love twice: the first time with with a man who seemed perfect but wasn’t, and the second with the loot from a high-end furniture thief who ends up being the more honest of the two.
  • I Shudder, by Paul Rudnick: Enjoyable from beginning to end. There is a nice variety of essays in this collection. Some are thought provoking, some are light hearted, some have a touch of sorrow, but all have a great slice of humor. I found myself laughing out loud more than once. I couldn’t help it — I wanted to be friends with Paul and be part of his cast of kooky characters. Interspersed with the essays is a continuing work of fiction, a story that grows as a character study of one curmudgeonly old man. Well worth the read, even if you’re not already familiar with Paul Rudnick’s plays for stage and screen.
  • Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, by David Sedaris: Really, what can I say about David Sedaris that hasn’t already been said? He’s hilarious, witty, charming, and a darn good writer. Some humor writers just want to get you to the punchline. They don’t necessarily care about the underlying point of the essay. That has never been true of David Sedaris, and his this collection is no exception. Read about my experience at his recent book signing. It’s a real back scratcher!
  • Soul of a Dog, by Jon Katz: In this slim volume, Katz explores the idea of animal spirituality. He sees in them individuality and remarkable self-awareness. He also wonders if it is their souls he is communing with or if he is projecting onto them — a human need to feel a connection to a world where most of us are very disconnected.
  • Unbroken, by Laura HillenbrandUnbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, made me miss my subway stop. I was so engaged by the story during one morning commute, I looked up to find the train already pulling out of the station. The subject, the life story of Louis Zamperini, may just be the most compelling one I’ve ever read.

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