Category Archives: New York Times Bestsellers

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Reading The Paying Guests is like tpgwalking into Season 3 of Downton Abbey, minus whatever posh is left. Or… maybe it’s more like a first-person female view from within The Great Gatsby (again, minus the posh). It’s not exactly beach reading, despite all of the scandal it contains; it passes for literature – in fact, it’s arguably made of much higher quality writing than Gatsby.

Set in 1922 post-war London, the opening scenes denote threadbare respectability in the houshold of a young woman named Frances, who is keeping a house for her mother after the deaths of her father and both brothers. Funds are tight, bills are piling, and to make ends meet Frances decides that they should take in paying guests. She has the upstairs of their home converted into an apartment, with the only shared area to be the water closet.

On finding a suitable young couple (Len and Lilian Barber) to let out the upstairs apartment, mother and daughter attempt to establish the proper level of familiarity – in small instances, neither of them is quite certain what the appropriate level of distance is between them and the strangers in such close proximity to them. They all see one another in passing, they all hear one another through walls and ceilings. Inevitably, a friendship soon springs up between Frances and the young Lilian Barber, and their small intimacies soon lead to larger ones, resulting in some very elegantly written sensual scenes between the two of them. At one point in the book, Frances tells Lilian, “Some things are so frightful that a bit of madness is the only sane response.”

There’s a lot of beauty admidst the squalor in this book, and I struggled – as I suspect readers are meant to – with balancing the moral aspects of Frances and Lilian’s affair. I have no qualms about same-sex coupling, but I do strongly dislike the dishonesty involved in their relationship. There are countless small deceits between Frances and her mother, Lilian and her husband, Lilian and Frances. After their first interlude, Lilian says “It didn’t seem strange, it didn’t seem wrong. I didn’t think of Len, [her husband] not for a moment. I know it’s wicked of me, but I didn’t. It doesn’t seem anything to do with him. It doesn’t seem anything to do with anyone but us, does it?”

Deceit may be the largest theme of the book, as it underlies every element of the plot throughout. The small deceits finally crescendo about halfway through the book and a tragic episode leaves Frances, detectives, and the reader trying to untangle them to reach the true meaning of it all.

All in all, I’d recommend this book to anyone able to tolerate a morally questionable protagonist for sake of probing deeper questions of meaning – or, for sake of a well-crafted story. I can’t say that I was left satisfied with the ending, but maybe you will be.

As always, all of the books I write about are purchased for my own gratification and I receive no compensation for my reviews. If you do decide to read The Paying Guests, I’d be thrilled if you would purchase it through my link as I will receive an infinitesimal commission if you do.


Gone Girl

Do you ever leave books on your to-read list for so long that they make a movie out of it before you read the book? That’s what happened with Gone Girl. When I was scoping out movies to see, I saw the trailer:

I wanted to see the movie, so I had to hurry up and read the book.

Bottom line up front: the movie is better. I realize how that sounds. Bear with me, here.

First off, both are disappointing. I’d tell you why, but… spoilers. So here’s the gist, without the spoil.

Gillian Flynn is more of a TV/movie person than a book person. She refers to herself as a “movie geek with a journalism degree.” Her writing style is very tabloid readable, and clearly shaped by her time at Entertainment Weekly. (Check out this TV-style promo site.) She acknowledges that her characters are generally “difficult to like,” and she refers to Gone Girl as a “twisty, noirish thriller.”

There’s nothing wrong with her writing itself, but there is something drastically wrong with her content.

You probably already know the basis of the plot, but just in case, here’s a brief synopsis: Amy Dunne goes missing on her 5th wedding anniversary, and her husband Nick is the primary suspect in her disappearance, not only because the husband is always a suspect, but because she left behind a journal detailing their ‘Amazing Amy’ relationship, her devotion to him, and finally her fear of him.

SPOILER ALERT: The first part of the book is Amy’s journal. The second part of the book is a first-person narrative from the POV of the agonized husband, worried about his wife, stunned that the general public seems to think that he has killed her, and then finally realizing the truth of the situation he is in. Finally, it shifts back to Amy herself… Yes, that’s right. Amy. The POV goes back to first person AMY. Who’s biding her time doing useful things like telling us “One should never marry a man who doesn’t own a decent set of scissors. That would be my advice. It leads to bad things.” Who’s framed her innocent husband for her murder to punish him for not understanding/fulfilling her enough (and for having an affair after she’s pushed him away), taken off with a wad of cash and an intent to kill herself only the better to frame him, gets robbed of her cash and calls up an obsessed but equally innocent ex-lover to help her out, and frames and kills him when she decides that she misses her husband and that “My greedy, stupid, irresponsible parents can finally pay back my trust fund. With interest,” so it’s time to go home. In the end of both versions of the story, her actions are rewarded – in the movie, her husband’s attorney finally tells him to thank her for the increase in business he’ll get when Lifetime picks up her story. In both accounts, she has managed a pregnancy with a frozen sperm sample he’d long forgotten about, and though he despises her, between the media attention and the soon-to-be-baby, he can’t leave. They’re back to being the perfect couple. Except… she’s completely psycho. In real life, he should have been able to prove her crimes and prosecute her, escape to seek treatment for the abuse she inflicted on him, and moved on happily in life with someone else if he so chose. This book is beyond an homage to dysfunction: it’s an endorsement of gender-specific abuse.

Why is the movie better than the book? Gillian Flynn’s ideas lend themselves better to film than print. And at the end of the day, it moves faster, so it’s less of a waste of time. I’m sure that the reason both book and movie are so popular is their shock value, but Gillian Flynn – talented author – has given wings to the “psycho bitch” phrase that angry men utter at women around the world. For that alone, I can’t like either book or movie regardless of their entertainment value.

“No one wants to think that they’ve raised anything but the perfect child.” – Gillian Flynn


The Fault in Our Stars

“Like, I realize that this is irrational, but when they tell you that you have, say, a 20 percent chance of living five years, the math kicks in and you figure that’s one in five… so you look around and think, as any healthy person would: I gotta outlast four of these bastards.”

John Green’s The Fault in our Stars  is the quintessential cancer book – and it’s written for young adults. The language is clear and concise, but infused with every bit of the depth of meaning that you’d expect in a book on the subject of life and death. And it’s one of the few books that I think will be even better as a movie.

The_Fault_in_Our_Stars

Hazel Grace Lancaster is relatable on paper. She’s not an insipid Bella-esque teen; she’s a quirky, cynical, real sort of girl that says things like “There is only one thing in this world shittier than biting it from cancer when you’re sixteen, and that’s having a kid who bites it from cancer,” and, “A nonhot boy stares at you relentlessly and it is, at best, awkward and, at worst, a form of assault. But a hot boy… well.” But on paper, she’s still paper. You have to fill her in with that girl you knew that had cancer, who wasn’t as this-or-that as Hazel is. On screen, Hazel will be free to finally be her own paradoxical person: both brave and scared, vulnerable and guarded, young and old at the same time. On paper, she won’t be a caricature of cancer.

The book is full of philosophical references, making it one of the smartest young adult novels I’ve seen on the market in a long time.

The best bits of the book are the soliloquizing, and being a fan of Tom Robbins I can certainly appreciate that. This book would have had more depth without the plot, as a simpler writing on the emotions and thoughts involved with cancer – however, without the love story, the masses wouldn’t have bought it. Well played, Mr. Green.

The most fascinating plot element was (at least for me) that of Peter Van Houten and his novel An Imperial Affliction. Hazel writes him, “…you got everything right in An Imperial Afflication. Or at least you got me right. Your book has a way of telling me what I’m feeling before I even feel it, and I’ve reread it dozens of times… Frankly, I’d read your grocery lists.”

Here’s what I didn’t love about it: I didn’t love the ending- and not for the reason you’d think. I anticipated more Peter van Houten and less John Green, I suppose. Que sera.

There is beauty in the simple choice of words that John Green uses; lofty words, simply profound meanings. Fun lines:
“Television is a passivity.”

“…the existence of broccoli does not in any way affect the taste of chocolate.”

You can get your copy here.


Silver Linings Playbook

silverlining

In an effort to escape my current reality of sifting through the granular remnants of time, I’ve been focusing on Silver Linings Playbook this week. First, there was the audiobook. I’m not sure that I liked it, but it was interesting. Trying to delve into the complexities of life with mood disorders and other problems while explaining societal response to “problems” is a uniquely captivating – and prevalent -subject.

I didn’t have high hopes for the movie, because most of the book occurs inside the protagonist’s head, and how can a film convey all that?

Answer: not well. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good movie, it just has very little in common with the book. In the movie, he’s delusional undiagnosed bipolar with mood swings, and you find that out within the first fifteen minutes. In the book, the guy doesn’t remember the crime that landed him in the psychiatric facility until nearly the end of the story; in the film, he remembers it the entire time. In the movie, he was in the facility for eight months, while in the book he was in “the bad place” for four years.

Behavenet.com had a field day with this film, tagging it with:

Anxiety Disorders | Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder | Bereavement |boundaries | delusion | depression | dose | drug | hallucination | Mania | mental illness | mood swings | obsession | Obsessive Compulsive Disorder | persecutory delusion | psychiatric hospital | psychiatrist | psychotherapy | stress | lithium |Seroquel | quetiapine | Abilify | aripiprazole | trazodone | Xanax | alprazolam |Klonopin | clonazepam | 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine | ethyl alcohol |venlafaxine | Effexor

There’s a lot of good in the book (and even a little in the film, too). One of the best parts of both is that it actualizes the struggles many of us live with (or have lived with) in our day-to-day, validating them with the stamp of public attention. Having spent years of my life looking for answers in literature and living through a couple of dysfunctional relationships, I have to say, most of us deserve better than a silver lining, but from within a bad situation, sometimes that’s the most we can bring ourselves to hope for. We look for answers, advice, and even treatment from the outside- but all change starts within.

My favorite quotes: “Life is not a PG feel-good movie. Real life often ends badly. Literature tries to document this reality, while showing us it is still possible for us to endure nobly.”

“When I read the actual story-how Gatsby loves Daisy so much but can’t ever be with her no matter how hard he tries-I feel like ripping the book in half and calling up Fitzgerald and telling him his book is all wrong, even though I know Fitzgerald is probably deceased. Especially when Gatsby is shot dead in his swimming pool the first time he goes for a swim all summer, Daisy doesn’t even go to his funeral, Nick and Jordan part ways, and Daisy ends up sticking with racist Tom, whose need for sex basically murders an innocent woman, you can tell Fitzgerald never took the time to look up at clouds during sunset, because there’s no silver lining at the end of that book, let me tell you.”

The story reminds me of this Rilo Kiley song:

And the grass it was a ticking
And the sun was on the rise
I never felt so wicked
As when I willed our love to die

And I was your silver lining
As the story goes
I was your silver lining
But now I’m gold

 

One more quote from the book: “And I still love you in my own fucked-up way. I miss you, I really do. Can we still be friends?”


The Night Circus

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, is one of the most elegant books that I’ve ever read.  Even the Wikipedia summary reads like a glowing review:

The Night Circus is a phantasmagorical fairy tale set near an ahistorical Victorian London in a wandering magical circus that is open only from sunset to sunrise. Le Cirque des Rêves, the Circus of Dreams, features such wonders and “ethereal enigmas” as a blooming garden made all of ice, acrobats soaring without a net, and a vertical cloud maze where patrons who get lost simply step off and float gently to the floor. The circus has no set schedule, appearing without warning and leaving without notice; they travel in a train disguised as an ordinary coal transport. A network of devoted fans styling themselves “rêveurs” develops around the circus; they identify to each other by adding a splash of red to garb that otherwise matches the characteristic black and white of the circus tents. The magical nature of the circus is occluded under the guise of legerdemain; the illusionist truly transforms her jacket into a raven and the fortune teller truly reads the uncertain future, and both are applauded for their ingenuity.

The circus serves a darker purpose beyond entertainment and profit. The magicians Prospero the Enchanter and the enigmatic Mr. A.H— groom their young proteges, Celia and Marco, to proxy their rivalry with the exhibits as a stage. Prospero teaches his daughter to hone her innate talents by holding ever larger and more complex magical workings in her mind. Celia takes her position on the game board as the illusionist who makes true transformations, adding tents and maintaining wondrous aspects from the inside. Mr. A.H— trains his orphan ward with books in the ways of glyphs and sympathetic magic and illusory worlds that exist only in the mind of the beholder. Marco takes a position as majordomo to the producer of the circus; he works from the outside in, connected to the circus but not a part of it. The two beguile the circus goers and each other with nightly wonders, soon falling in love despite being magically bound to a deadly competition with rules neither understands; the magical courtship strains the fate laid out for them and endangers the circus that has touched the lives of so many and cannot survive without the talents of both players.

I’m grateful to Kirinjirafa for recommending this book to me (even before she blogged it), because it transported me out of my lately mundane day-to-day routine into a world of magic and beauty. I was so enthralled with the book that I read it in tiny morsels, a chapter at a time, savoring every sentence.  I’m not even sure how to convey how much I love this book.

Here are my favorite passages:

The striped canvas sides of the tent stiffen, the soft surface hardening as the fabric changes to paper. Words appear over the walls, typeset letters overlapping handwritten text. Celia can make out snatches of Shakespearean sonnets and fragments of hymns to Greek goddesses as the poetry fills the tent. It covers the walls and the ceiling and spreads out over the floor. And then the tent begins to open, the paper folding and tearing. The black stripes stretch out into empty space as their white counterparts brighten, reaching upward and breaking apart into branches. “Do you like it?” Marco asks, once the movement settles and they stand within a darkened forest of softly glowing, poem-covered trees.

and

As the light from the trees increases, it becomes so bright that Celia closes her eyes. The ground beneath her feet shifts, suddenly unsteady, but Marco puts a hand on her waist to keep her upright. When she opens her eyes, they are standing on the quarterdeck of a ship in the middle of the ocean. Only the ship is made of books, its sails thousands of overlapping pages, and the sea it floats upon is dark black ink. Tiny lights hang across the sky, like tightly packed stars bright as sun. “I thought something vast would be nice after all the talk of confined spaces,” Marco says.

I’m staying tuned for more information regarding the movie adaptation. Do you think the beauty will translate to the screen?

If you haven’t already read it, buy your copy here.


Books Oprah Wasn’t Wrong About

I’m not anti-Oprah. I’m not an Oprah groupie, either. I can think of several bombs on her book club list (I’m pointing at you, James Frey and Billie Letts!), but that doesn’t mean all of them were. She has very eclectic taste, covering a wide variety of styles and plotlines. The only common denominator I can see is that all of the novels she recommends are depressing.

Since Oprah’s Book Club has returned as 2.0, here is my timeline of books she was right-on about (IMHO) the first time around:

1999 White Oleander 

What Oprah Says: “Page after page, I fell in love with a story that deeply moved me, and vivid passages that described the sky as the color of peaches and compared sorrow to the taste of a copper penny.”

What I say: The movie really sucked, but the book is prose that reads like poetry.

The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert that fall. Only the oleanders thrived…”

2000 Open House, by Elizabeth Berg

What Oprah says: “In this superb novel by the beloved author of Talk Before Sleep, The Pull of the Moon, and Until the Real Thing Comes Along, a woman re-creates her life after divorce by opening up her house and her heart. Open House is a love story about what can blossom between a man and a woman, and within a woman herself.”

What I say: Elizabeth Berg brilliantly captures the emotions involved with losing someone.

You know before you know, of course. You are bending over the dryer, pulling out the still-warm sheets, and the knowledge walks up your backbone. You stare at the man you love and you are staring at nothing: he is gone before he is gone.”

2001 Stolen Lives, by Malika Oufkir

What Oprah says: “…People read the book and they are changed by it—enlightened by it —opened up by it.”

What I say: This book is an emotionally evocative account of Malika’s political imprisonment in turbulent Morocco, and it is well worth reading for educational and entertainment purposes.

Finally the trucks slowed to a halt. We were blindfolded and led through one door and then through another. The blindfolds were removed, and we found ourselves in the small courtyard of what seemed to be a former farmhouse-now converted to a prison. The walls of the enclosure were so high that we couldn’t see the sky. Soldiers stood at arms in each corner…”

2004 Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

What Oprah says: From Stiva’s debts and infidelity to Levin’s idealized dream of a wife and family—from Nikolai’s drunken Communist rants to Kitty’s naive and passionate heart—Tolstoy weaves an extravagant web.”

What I say: Not being fluent in Russian (or knowing any at all), I can’t enumerate the merits of the new translation Oprah chose for her book club. I did read it, though, and enjoyed it quite a lot. There aren’t a lot of grabby lines in Russian literature, in general- things tend to be a bit dry and long-winded, so I won’t give you an excerpt. The plot is really the point of this story.

2004 One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez

What Oprah says: “Brace yourselves—One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez is as steamy, dense and sensual as the jungle that surrounds the surreal town of Macondo!”

What I say: An intricate, fanciful, truly epic, all-encompassing novel.

“He dug so deeply into her sentiments that in search of interest he found love, because by trying to make her love him he ended up falling in love with her. Petra Cotes, for her part, loved him more and more as she felt his love increasing, and that was how in the ripeness of autumn she began to believe once more in the youthful superstition that poverty was the servitude of love. Both looked back then on the wild revelry, the gaudy wealth, and the unbridled fornication as an annoyance and they lamented that it had cost them so much of their lives to find the paradise of shared solitude. Madly in love after so many years of sterile complicity, they enjoyed the miracle of loving each other as much at the table as in bed, and they grew to be so happy that even when they were two worn-out people they kept on blooming like little children and playing together like dogs.”

2008 A New Earth, by Eckhart Tolle

What Oprah says: “This is one of the most important subjects and presented by one of the most important books of our time, A New Earth: Awakening To Your Life’s Purpose. I don’t think there’s anything more important than awakening and also knowing what your purpose is.”

What I say: This book will blow your ego.

“So the single most vital step on your journey toward enlightenment is this: learn to disidentify from your mind. Every time you create a gap in the stream of mind, the light of your consciousness grows stronger. One day you may catch yourself smiling at the voice in your head, as you would smile at the antics of a child. This means that you no longer take the content of your mind all that seriously, as your sense of self does not depend on it.”


I Met the Bloggess

Not really. Really, Kirinjirafa met the Bloggess, and I intend to blatantly steal as much related content from her as possible (or, some), as a special kind of repayment for her introducing me to this blog in the first place.

If you think this:

Knock-knock, motherfucker!

is funny, you should read The Bloggess (and then print the Beyonce paper doll here). If you don’t think it’s funny, there’s either something wrong with you or you need to read the rest of the story.

Jenny Lawson (a.k.a. The Bloggess) deserves to be so much more than an internet sensation, so all of her adoring fans were ecstatic way-back-when, when she expanded her soon-to-be-empire to include a book. Most of us even pre-ordered it and read it on our Kindles (cough, cough)  the day that it came out, and then slacked off on blogging that momentous event for several months. The book is just like the blog, but there’s more of it. Blog entries are only so long, and when you read one, you have to wait for the next one. Not so with the book. With the book, you can read 336 pages in one sitting if you want! (But when you finish, you still have to wait for the next one.) Buy the book here.

One day, I hope I really do meet Jenny Lawson. But until I do, this autographed illustration Kirinjirafa made for me will suffice.

Kirinjirafa’s lovely illustration work with Jenny Lawson’s signature, and it’s MINE, all MINE!