This blog is dedicated to the amazing staff at the New Canaan Public Library in New Canaan, Connecticut.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

If I Stay by Gayle Forman, 2009, * * * *

The last normal moment that Mia, a talented cellist, can remember is being in the car with her family.  Then she is standing outside her body beside their mangled Buick and her parent's corpses, watching herself and her little brother being tended by paramedics.  As she ponders her state ("Am I dead?  I actually have to ask myself this"), Mia is whisked away to a hospital, where, her body in a coma, she reflects on the past and tries to decide whether to fight to live. Via Mia's thoughts and flashbacks, Forman (Sisters in Sanity) expertly explores the teenager's life, her passion for classical music and her strong relationships with her family, friends and boyfriend, Adam. Mia's singular perspective (which will recall Alice Sebold's adult novel, The Lovely Bones) also allows for powerful portraits of her friends and family as they cope.  "Please don't die.  If you die, there's going to be one of those cheesy Princess Diana memorials at school," prays Mia's friend Kim.  "I know you'd hate that kind of thing."  Intensely moving, the novel will force you to take a look at your life and the people and things that make it worth living.  A sophisticated, layered, and beautiful story about the power of family and friends, the choices we all make and the ultimate choice Mia commands. I truly appreciated her family and friends where everyone is their own character with specific traits and quirks and, amazingly, this is not a dysfunctional, but loving, family. Although this is listed in the library under Young Readers, I would highly recommend it to anyone.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt, 2010, * * * * *

On December 8, 2007, Amy Rosenblatt Solomon collapsed on a treadmill prior to going to work and died from an asymptomatic heart condition.  Roger Rosenblatt and his wife Ginny drove from their Long Island home to be with Any's husband and their three grandchildren: six-year-old Jessica, four-year-old Sammy, and one-year-old James, aka "Bubbies."   The memoir take place during the year that follows Amy's death, as Roger and Ginny, called "Boppo" and "Mimi" by their grandchildren, quickly reaccustom themselves to the choreography of the everyday and the extraordinary including bedtime stories, talking toys, playdates, homework, family vacations, holidays and nonstop questions.  As he marvels at the strength of his son-in-law, a surgeon, and the tenacity and skill of his wife, a former kindergarten teacher, Boppo attends each day to "the one household duty I have mastered" - preparing the morning toast perfectly to each child's liking. If there is one shortcoming to "Making Toast," it is that the writing often feels dispassionate.  The descriptions of tough times don't match up with the calm, unemotional explanations. However, the memoir commands your attention by other means, including the format -- there are no chapters -- only journal style entries each of which makes your heart ache. "Making Toast" is a bleakly beautiful scatter plot of grief which is a balm to read.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra, 2005, * * * *

The Swallows of Kabul is a dazzling novel written with compassion and exquisite detail about the memtality of Islamic fundamentalists and the complexities of the Muslim world,  Yasmina Khadra is the pen name of an Algerian army officer named Mohammed Moulessehould who adopted a woman's pseudonym to avoid military censorship.  He only revealed his true identity after leaving the army in 2001 and going into exile in France.  Set in Kabul under the rule of the Taliban, this extraordinary novel takes readers into the lives of two couples: Mohsen, who comes from a family of wealthy shopkekepers whom the Taliban has destroyed; Zunaira, his wife, exceedingly beautiful, who was once a brilliant teacher and is now no longer allowed to leave her home without an escort or covering her face.  Intersecting their world is Atiq,  a prison keeper, a man has sincerely adopted the Taliban ideology and struggles to keep his faith, and his wife, Musarrat, who once rescued Atiq, and is now dying of sickness and despair.   The novel brings readers into the hot, dusty streets, of Kabul and offers them an unflinching but compassionate insight into a society that violence and hypocrisy have brought to the edge of despair.  However, the way that reality is narrated and ultimately redefined, once more proves the power of fiction to turn our despair into hope, to restore our stolen sense of dignity and humanity and to desire life when death seems to be the safest refuge.

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, 2009, * * * * *

It is Enniscorthy, in Ireland's County Wexford, in the early 1950s and Eilis Lacey is one among many of her generation who cannot find work at home.  When a job is offered in America it is clear to everyone that she must go.  Leaving her family and country, Eilis heads for unfamiliar Brooklyn and to a crowded boarding house where the landlady's intense scrutiny and the small jealousies of her fellow residents only deepen her isolation. Slowly, however, the pain of parting is buried beneath the rhythms of her new life -- until she begins to realize that she as found a sort of happiness.  As she falls in love, news comes from home that forces her back to Enniscorthy, not to the constrictions of her old life, but to new possibilities which conflict deeply with the life she has left behind in Brooklyn.  In the quiet character of Eilis Lacey, Colm Toibin has created a memorable heroine and in Brooklyn he has written a luminous novel of devastating power.  The portrait Toibin paints of Brooklyn in the early '50s is affectionate but scarcely dewy-eyed.  Eilis encounters discrimnation in variouis forms -- against families, againsts blacks, against Jews, against lower-class Irish -- and finds Manhattan more intimidating than alluring. Toibin's prose is graceful but never showy, and his characters are interesting and believable.  As a study of the quest for home and the difficulty of figuring out where home really is, Brooklyn  has a universality that goes far beyond the specific details of Eilis's struggle.

The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee, 2008, * * *

Former Elle editor Lee delivers a debut novel dealing with the rigors of love and survival during a time of car, and the consequences of choices made under duress.  Claire Pendleton, newly married and arrived in Hong Kong in 1952, finds work giving piano lessons to the daughter of Melody and Victor Chen, a wealthy Chinese couple.  While the girl is less than interest in music, the Chen's British expat driver, Will Truesdale, is certainly interested in Claire, and vice versa. Their fast-blossoming affair is juxtaposed against a plot line beginning in 1941, when Will gets swept up by the beautiful and tempestuous Trudy Liang.  The novel then follows through his life during the Japanese occupation.  As Claire and Will's affiar becomes common knowledge, so do the specifics of Will's murky past, Trudy's motivations and Victor's role in past events.  The rippling of past actions through to the present lends the narrative layers of intrigue and more than a few unexpected twist.  Lee covers a little-known time in Chese history without melodrama, and deconstructs without judgment the choices people make in order to live one more day under tortuous circumstances.

Father of the Rain by Lily King, 2009, * * * *

You know you are in for some heavy weather when a novel takes its title from the Book of Job "Hath the rain a father?"  Lily King's third novel, Father of the Rain, is a moving drama about a daughter's attachment to a destructive, but often disarmingly charming father and about how that bond is pelted by the storms of divorce and alcoholism.  Father of the Rain covers 34 years in the life of Daley Amory, bookended by the summer of Richard Nixon's resignation and President Obama's election in 2008.  The political markers are significant, spanning an age of cynical disenchantment with the Establishment to an augury of unexpected hope.  The novel is set in an affluent East Coast seaside town, where Gardiner Amory has a life that revolves around dogs, tennis, martinis, a swimming pool, and step families. A Harvard-educated broker, he is a racist, anti-Semite, and sexist.  King is skilled at zeroing in on the nitty-gritty dynamics of the intense father-daughter relationship, but it is her sympathetic ancillary characters and two strategic jumps in her narrative that add texture and save it from claustrophobia.