Monday, April 06, 2015

Clarke University Crook Sentenced, Poetry Month, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, When in Doubt, Add Butter by Beth Harbison and The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen

So I've been devouring books from my TBR at a pretty rapid rate, and I now have 5 books to review, so I will have to keep the tidbits here from being too long.

Personally, I feel that this dirtbag should have gotten at least 10 years for taking advantage of the wonderfully kind people, mostly nuns, who work at the bookstore at Clarke College, now Clarke University. I mean seriously, this guy has done this twice, and they will probably parole him after a couple of years so that he can do it again! Horrible!

Ex-University Bookstore Manager Sentenced for Embezzlement
James Spaulding, former manager of the Clarke University bookstore in
Dubuque, Iowa, was sentenced to four years
in federal prison for embezzling more than $300,000 from the school by
creating a fake book wholesaler, the Gazette reported. Spaulding pleaded
the charges last December.

From Shelf Awareness, a tidbit of poetry for April.

As Poetry Month begins, I've saved the best for last. From a
Guardian essay, "I am in love with poetry
by Andrew O'Hagan: "Maybe the optimists are right; maybe poetry does
help you live your life. And maybe they are more right than they know,
and it rounds you out for death, 'the dark backing that a mirror needs,'
as Saul Bellow writes in Humboldt's Gift, 'if we are to see
anything....' And where the times are brutal and the banks are deluded
and the adverts are venal and the news is all lies, perhaps the madness
of poets represents the rage of the imagination against the viciousness
of reality. 'I could see that Humboldt was pondering what to do between
then and now,' writes Bellow, 'between birth and death, to satisfy
certain great questions. Such brooding didn't make him any saner.' Yet
the world is more than the settled mind, said John Clare, Robert
Fergusson, Arthur Rimbaud and Sylvia Plath. It is more than our ordered
sense of it, and poetry is the least servile of all our forms. That is
why I love it." --Robert Gray

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr has gotten buckets of good ink and pixels from the media, famed authors and book reviewers, so that made me somewhat leery of it. Don't get me wrong, literary fiction can be wonderful, but in this era, it can also be horrendously pretentious, overwritten and deadly dull. Especially, I've noticed, when it is written by men. Again, that is not to say that there are women who write horribly pretentious books that will bore you to death by page 25 (I'm looking at you, Joyce Carol Oates), but I've noticed that books by say, Jonathan Franzen are more likely to be insomnia cures than books by Jennifer Wiener or Erica Bauermeister. 
So I was amazed when I sat down to read  All the Light late Saturday morning and ended up looking up at 6 pm, having read the entire book in one sitting. I honestly could not put it down. Riveting barely covers it. Brilliant writing, a complex but clear plot and fascinating characters combine to make this a "modern day classic" as so many reviewers say about books that have no claim to such a title, while this one does.
 Here's the blurb, which contains SPOILERS, as does the review itself:
From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the beautiful, stunningly ambitious instant New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.
Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.
In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.
Doerr’s “stunning sense of physical detail and gorgeous metaphors” (San Francisco Chronicle) are dazzling. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, he illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another. Ten years in the writing, All the Light We Cannot See is a magnificent, deeply moving novel from a writer “whose sentences never fail to thrill” (Los Angeles Times).
Finalist for the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction
One of the New York Times Book Review's 10 Best Books of 2014
For once, I am in complete agreement with the California newspapers and their assessments of Doerr's writing and use of metaphor.  I was so caught up in Marie-Laure's life that I was devastated that we don't know what happened to her father, though Doerr does tell us that he was in some kind of concentration camp, so the reader intuits that he died there, either of starvation or he was shot or gassed. And I have to note that, as a person whose grandparents were first generation in this country (my great-grandparents emigrated from Germany and Switzerland and Ireland) I grew up with an understanding of how cruel German people can be, and how prejudiced against anyone who isn't German and Lutheran. I had also interviewed a Mercer Island man who grew up in Germany prior and during WW2, and he explained to me that the Pimpfe and Hitler Youth were clubs for children that provided, at first, fun activities and social opportunities and, of course, food, at a time when there were a number of children who were orphaned, hungry and without many opportunities to better themselves. It was only gradually that the Nazis would program their hatred into these vulnerable children and teenagers. This former Nazi's information on his childhood backed up a lot of the scenarios in this book, when Werner is experiencing life in Hitler Youth and as a radio technician in the Nazi army. Though I realize we are supposed to have some sympathy for poor Werner, who, as an orphan, couldn't control much of his destiny, I felt less sympathy for him when he failed to help his friend Frederick, who was nearly killed by brutal bullies. He also purposely lead his friend Volkheimer to find resistance workers and kill them, and he kept blinding himself to the reality that he was as responsible for their deaths as Volkheimer was. Also, though Werner plays a pivotal role in saving Marie Laure, they only really meet once, so their lives are only "interwoven" indirectly for a majority of the book. Still, I was enchanted with their lives, and only disappointed that we never learn what happened to Marie Laure's papa the locksmith, or the huge diamond he sought to protect. I wondered if anyone ever found it while diving in the ocean, or while it was hidden in the cement bunker? At any rate, I highly recommend this book to anyone and everyone, and I'd give it an A.

From the sublime to the ridiculously titled, today I just finished a book called When In Doubt, Add Butter by Beth Harbison. To be honest, I just picked it up because the cover had cupcakes on it, and because it was on sale for $4.99, and it sounded interesting on the back cover blurb. I was therefore surprised when I sat down to read it and finished it in four hours. Like the cupcakes pictured, it's a sweet and light confection of a book, with interesting, humorous characters and and inevitable HEA. Here's the blurb:
As far as Gemma is concerned, her days of dating are over. In fact, it’s her job to cater other peoples’ dates, and that’s just fine by her. At thirty-seven, she has her own business, working as a private chef, and her life feels full and secure. She’s got six steady clients that keep her hands full.
There’s Lex, the fussy but fabulous department store owner who loves Oysters Rockefeller and 1950s comfort food; Willa, who needs to lose weight under doctor’s orders but still believes butter makes everything better; a colorful family who may or may not be part of the Russian mob; an ├╝berwealthy Georgetown family; the picture-perfect Van Houghtens, whose matriarch is “allergic to everything”; and finally, a man she calls “Mr. Tuesday,” whom she has never met but who she is strangely drawn to.
For Gemma, cooking is predictable. Recipes are certain. Use good ingredients, follow the directions, and you are assured success. Life, on the other hand, is full of variables. So when Gemma’s takes an unexpected turn on a road she always thought was straight and narrow, she must face her past and move on in ways she never would have imagined. Because sometimes in life, all you need is a little hope, a lot of courage, and—-oh yes—-butter.
Obviously, this was packaged as a fluffy "chick lit" novel, when in reality, it's not quite as fluffy as the title and the blurb suggest.SPOILERS AHEAD
Gemma has a one-night stand with a really hot guy, and though she uses condoms, they're 7 years old and no longer viable, so she gets pregnant for the second time at age 37. Her first pregnancy was at age 17, when a guy she falls in love with in high school totally rejects her when he discovers she's pregnant. So Gemma does the right thing and puts the baby up for adoption, realizing that she hasn't got the money or time or understanding to raise a baby herself. Why she doesn't use birth control this first time is unclear, but Gemma does acknowledge that anyone looking at her life would think she's stupid to get pregnant accidently twice. Still, she is afraid to tell Paul, though it is patently obvious to readers that she is in love with him, and that he's been flirting with her for a long time as a client for good reason. Yet Gemma's deft hand in the kitchen and her love affairs aren't even what made me like her, initially, it was her kindness and care of her clients, especially Willa, who is immobilized by her obesity, and who needs help in figuring out how to cook healthy and eat properly in order to lose weight and end her isolation. Though I believe that you can be overweight and exercise and still be healthy, I felt a kinship with Willa and I understood how she felt about hiding away from a society that spurns and judges all women based on how they look, what size clothing they wear and how easily they give up their lives to men in relationships, and of course how many children they produce for said men. There are a lot of good questions that Gemma ponders about the desirability of children and family over a career, and how food can be misused by over and underweight women. A definite B+, with a recommendation to those who are "foodies" and those who like stories of women's growth.

I am almost certain that I've read The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen before, but it was so long ago that reading it again only felt like slight deja vu.Here's the blurb:Emily Benedict has come to Mullaby, North Carolina, hoping to solve at least some of the riddles surrounding her mother’s life. But the moment Emily enters the house where her mother grew up and meets the grandfather she never knew, she realizes that mysteries aren’t solved in Mullaby, they’re a way of life: Here are rooms where the wallpaper changes to suit your mood. Unexplained lights skip across the yard at midnight. And a neighbor, Julia Winterson, bakes hope in the form of cakes, not only wishing to satisfy the town’s sweet tooth but also dreaming of rekindling the love she fears might be lost forever. Can a hummingbird cake really bring back a lost love? Is there really a ghost dancing in Emily’s backyard? The answers are never what you expect. But in this town of lovable misfits, the unexpected fits right in.
I really enjoyed this confection of a book, but then, I already expected to, because I've read all of Allen's other books. She combines magic realism with a bit of mystery and chick lit to create books that are pure pleasure to read. Though Emily is something of a wimp, she's still young enough that it isn't an annoying dealbreaker for the book. And of course, I found her grandfather, the giant, to be fascinating. A well-earned B+, with a recommendation to those who like Alice Hoffman's magical realism, or books like The Night Circus.

I have two other books that I need to review, but for now, I think I will save the Tygrine Cat and A Dangerous Place for my next blog post, later this week.

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