Thursday, October 17, 2013

Words about Books

From Mark Flanagan's Contemporary Lit blog

"There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred are there. Only you don’t see them." - Elie Wiesel

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Too Close to the Falls

Too Close to the FallsToo Close to the Falls by Catherine Gildiner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Gildiner's memoir of her very unusual childhood is vivid and hilarious. From the age of four she worked in her father's drug store in Niagara Falls, NY. Her best friends were the store employees, especially the  delivery man, Roy, with whom she spent hours ferrying medicines to the locals and learning a lot of their secrets.

In her Catholic school the too-smart-for-her-own-good, hyperactive Cathy would try anything except studying. When the boy behind her wouldn't stop pulling her hair out, she stabbed him in the hand, leading to a conversation with a psychiatrist that had me laughing out loud. Her parents obviously worried a lot, but they respected her individuality and provided only the gentlest guidance. Cathy's intellectual mother spent her days reading and researching esoteric subjects. She never cooked a meal or cleaned her own house and had to teach her daughter how to behave when she visited friends whose meals were prepared and eaten at home. This mom deserves a book of her own. (Much about her becomes clearer in the sequel.)

Cathy's unusual upbringing and her uninhibited spirit led to many hilarious incidents, as well as some dangerous moments. All are vividly recounted by the author, a psychologist-turned-writer who created one of the most entertaining reads I've had in a long time. I immediately went on to the sequel, Too Close to the Falls.

View all my reviews

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East

Sandy Tolan's thoroughly researched and documented book reveals the complicated story behind the Israel-Palestine conflict. He puts a face on the history--two faces, actually. Bashir grew up in Ramla, a Palestinian town where his father had built their home (and planted a lemon tree) before the influx of Jewish refugees after World War II. Dalia was one of the newcomers; her parents had emigrated from Bulgaria when she was very young. When Bashir's family and thousand of other Palestinians were forced to leave their villages to make room for the new Israelis, Dalia's parents moved into Bashir's "abandoned" home, while unknown to them, his people marched through the desert to new villages where they started life again with nothing but resentment.

Dalia learns the history of her home almost twenty years later when Bashir, a lawyer (and possibly a terrorist) fighting for his people's "right to return," goes to Ramla to visit the home he lost. When she invites him in and hears his story, Dalia opens the door to a fragile friendship that will last for decades and motivate her to work for peace. She must reconcile her love of Israel with her growing understanding of the price paid by the Palestinians and the reasons for their uprisings. The friendship between Dalia and Bashir offers hope that someday the two nations can live together in peace, but the history Tolan lays out, so full of oppression, tragic mistakes, and ironies, makes it hard to believe there will ever be a happy ending to this story.

As sobering as it is, I highly recommend Tolan's book to anyone who wants to understand the powder keg that is Israel/Palestine today. Your eyes and heart will be opened.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013


Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" thrills me every time I hear it--and I play it almost every day. Alan Light's story of the song's history let me know that I am not alone. Millions of people all over the world have been moved by this amazing song.

The book includes Cohen's original lyrics and explores some possible meanings of the song, which has been performed by legions of singers. John Cale's selection of verses (leaving out what in my mind was Cohen's essential one) set the now-standard version of the lyrics. Jeff Buckley's beautiful rendition is considered by many to be the best, though you can choose from dozens in every style of music. I'm still deciding what my favorite is.

Cohen has said that he welcomes the continuing evolution of the song. Its haunting beauty and mystery, its celebration of both pain and joy, have graced venues from the Olympics (k.d.lang, 2010) to the children's movie "Shrek" (Rufus Wainwright) to "American Idol." The song seems to speak to everyone.

If you enjoy learning about the creation of a work of art and how it succeeds or fails to find an audience--or if you just love the song-- you'll enjoy this book. And it you're like me, it will lead you to acquire many new versions and never get tired of hearing them.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Telegraph Avenue

Telegraph AvenueTelegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I am a huge fan of the brilliant Michael Chabon, but I almost put this book down a dozen times. I stayed with it because I loved the characters, two nerdy, struggling guys who run a used record store in a run-down neighborhood, and their wives, fathers, and sons. Every character took up a place in my heart, and so I followed them through the swamp of details about jazz artists and producers in the days of vinyl. Unless you share Chabon's passion for the subject--I do not--you'll be wishing an editor had cut the book to its real story, which is about friendship, fatherhood, changing cultural values, and the clash of big-box commerce with local culture and business--all worthy themes explored with Chabon's usual originality, humor, and sensitivity. And the man can still write more consecutive beautiful sentences than anyone else I've ever read.

I'm going to go back to The Yiddish Policeman's Union, which I have somehow never read, to renew my faith in my favorite writer.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

When We Were the Kennedys

This lovely book quickly became one of my all-time favorite memoirs. Monica Wood's ability to describe childhood experiences rivals Harper Lee's in To Kill a Mockingbird. Although her subject is very sad--the sudden death of her beloved father when she was ten--it is also filled with characters full of love, kindness, and resilience, as well as grief and confusion. It also paints a vivid picture of a mid-century industrial town where working in the factory brought pride, unity, and security to families like Wood's.

And the writing is gorgeous--one gracefully crafted sentence after another. From the introduction: Her family's story was "powerful and engulfing, erasing all that came before, just like the mill that had made this story possible. In each beholden family, old languages were receding into a multicultural twilight as the new, sun-flooded story took hold: the story of us, American children of well-paid laborers, beneficiaries of a dream. Every day our mothers packed our fathers’ lunch pails as we put on our school uniforms, every day a fresh chance on the dream path our parents had laid down for us. Our story, like the mill, hummed in the background of our every hour, a tale of quest and hope that resonated similarly in all the songs in all the blocks and houses, in the headlong shouts of all the children at play, in the murmur of all the graces said at all the kitchen tables. In my family, in every family, that story—with its implied happy ending—hinged on a single, beautiful, unbreakable, immutable fact: Dad. Then he died."

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Breaking Up With God: A Love Story

Breaking Up With God: A Love StoryBreaking Up With God: A Love Story by Sarah Sentilles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sentilles describes the evolution on her faith in God as if they had been lifelong friends and lovers.
The strong, comforting faith of her childhood led her to study religion at Harvard, work as a youth minister, and decide to become an Episcopalian priest. As she learned more about both religion and human experience, she came to realize that her relationship with God wasn't working. In her struggle to decide whether to stay on the path to priesthood, her mother told her, "Part of life is discerning when you need to stay and when it's time to go. Sometimes it's difficult to tell the difference." Her journey was long and painful, but ultimately Sentilles did "break up with God." Here's how she describes it:

"I didn't lose my faith. I left it....God is gone....Too many terrible things done in his name. Too much suffering in the world. Too much violence. Too many disasters. I let go of a personal God. I let go of all of it."

The metaphor of God as boyfriend may seem sacreligious to people of faith, or trite and facile to skeptics. For me the metaphor worked perfectly, maybe because my own experience has been similar. If you struggle with belief or have outgrown your faith, you'll like this book.