Monday, June 16, 2014

Summer means beach reads!

Over the past couple of days I read two of my favourite "summertime" authors.  Both of them write easy to read, engaging, and intelligent novels.

The Matchmaker by Elin Hilderbrand
I have read most of Hilderbrand's Nantucket based books and I'd say this was one of her better ones.  The story centres on Dabney, a woman in her early 40s who is the face of Nantucket's Chamber of Commerce.  She is married to a Harvard economics professor, Box, who spends his weekdays in Boston and they have one daughter, Agnes, who lives in New York.  Dabney also has her quirks - she has a strange phobia which means she will not leave Nantucket unless her life depends on it (though she did do an undergraduate degree at Harvard) and she is a very successful matchmaker (she sees a pink, good, or green, bad, aura around all prospective couples).

Dabney's life is thrown into chaos when her high school sweetheart, and Agnes' biological father, Clendenin, returns to the island.  They have not been in contact with each other for over 25 years as Clen left the island to pursue his dream of becoming a foreign correspondent and Dabney's phobias did not allow her to follow him.  After he left she found out she was pregnant, and told him, but he did not return.  Box adopted Agnes and they did not tell her who her real father was until she was 16.

Agnes also returns to the island for the summer.  She is engaged to a much older, wealthy man who is very controlling.  She has also heard rumours he was abusive to his first wife and she is trying to figure out what to do.  Dabney of course saw the green aura around them and instead tries to push her toward a dental student who is working on Nantucket for the summer.

Clen's appearance makes Dabney physically ill - at least that what she thinks.  And we follow the characters for the course of a summer and fall to see how the various relationships resolve.

The One & Only by Emily Giffin
Shea is a 30 something woman who has never left her home town in Walker, Texas.  She is employed by the Walker University athletics department and has been obsessed with the Walker football team for her entire life.  She is dating a former Walker football player but is not terribly enthusiastic about him.  The story starts at the funeral of the mother of Shea's best friend Lucy.  Lucy's father also happens to be the Walker coach.  The funeral causes Shea to take stock of her life.

So the book follows her decision to pursue her dream of sports journalism, date Walker's only Heisman trophy winner and fall for Lucy's father.  There's not really much more to the story but the characters are generally likeable (except for the ones who are meant not to be) so I really wanted to find out what happened to all of them.  This is a well written, easy read for a lazy summer day.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Two Recent Books

Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole

This is a really quick and interesting read.  The books is narrated in the first person by a young medical student studying to be a psychiatrist, whose name we never learn.  He was born in Nigeria but has lived in the US for many years and returns for his first visit.  He left after some sort of personal tragedy which caused him to be estranged from his mother but we never really learn the details of that either.

It is fascinating to see Nigeria through the eyes of someone who once lived there comfortably but now filters all he sees through North American sensibilities.  He is now taken aback by the extent of the corruption (he sees internet fraudsters in action at local internet cafes and is approached for bribes for just about anything he does).  He is also disappointed by the terrible lack of displays at the local museum - he feels Nigerian history, culture and art is better documented in museums in London and elsewhere.  He also has trouble truly connecting with his former friends - though he does have a good relationship with his aunts and uncles.  There are also cultural advances that surprise and delight him - a woman reading literature on a bus, a sophisticated music school (unfortunately only accessible by the most wealthy Nigerians) and a well stocked book store.  The story is interspersed with photographs taken by the author which appropriately illustrate his impressions of the country.

At the end the narrator is still torn about whether he can return to the country permanently or not - and it is easy to understand his mixed feelings.

It's Kind of A Funny Story by Ned Vizzini

This is a sad but hopeful story about a depressed teenager who thinks of committing suicide one night but instead calls a suicide hotline and is encouraged to check himself into a local hospital's psychiatric ward.  The author clearly illustrates the devastating effects of too much pressure on a teenager in today's competitive environment.

Craig devoted himself to the sole purpose of getting accepted at a prestigious Manhattan high school - but as soon as he gets there his life begins to unravel.  He gets in with a group of less than desirable friends, develops a crush on his best friend's girlfriend and feels totally incapable of achieving the marks he wants.  His worry spirals and he becomes unable to sleep and eat.

In the hospital, faced with others who have had lifelong struggles or new ones like himself, he learns about himself and finds that art grounds him.  After five days he makes friends, changes his life goals,  settles into appropriate therapy and medication and we come away feeling he'll have to struggle with depression and anxiety forever but that he'll have the inner tools he needs to survive.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Fields of Exile by Nora Gold

This was a great novel by a relatively new author.  Gold tackles a difficult subject in a balanced way without coming across as preachy.

Judith is a Canadian woman who moved to Israel and has been working there in a series of jobs.  Though she is not financially successful, and her father thinks she is also not socially successful since she remains single, she is very committed to the country.  She feels it is her home - though she is left leaning and demonstrates against many government policies in the territories.  Judith returns to Canada to be with her dying father and on his death bed promises to complete her MSW in Canada.

She enrols in the fictional Dunhill University.  There she quickly makes friends with both fellow students and a professor, Suzy.  Suzy appoints her to be co-chair of the school's anti-oppression committee and Judith's life begins to unravel when they invite a keynote speaker who favours violence against Israeli and Jewish civilians to further the cause of the Palestinians.  Judith's boyfriend encourages her to keep her head down and finish her degree quickly.  And she tries too...but eventually is faced with one too many demonstration and takes a stand.  She quickly learns who her real friends are and it all comes to head at an Anti-Oppression Day rally which has dire consequences for her.

The pace of the book is good, the writing is fluid and the characters are all interesting (whether they are likeable or not).  I highly recommend this book for a fictional account of very real issues.