This week we’re featuring some of our “greatest hits” – the most popular Book-a-Day blog posts since we started this almost three years ago. Today’s is A Dog’s Life: the Autobiography of a Stray by Ann M. Martin, reviewed by Bob M.
Posts Tagged ‘Bob M.’s Picks’
Debut novels are always worth checking out, usually this is the author’s “Great American Novel” and you can sometimes find a real gem. Stephen Wetta makes a stunning debut with this coming of age novel. It’s easy to root for Jack Witcher, the wise and wistful 12-year-old narrator who is on the precipice of adolescence. The cast of characters is entertaining and the setting of the book is seeped with the atmosphere.
Told in the first person, Jack is a very bright good kid who is an outcast because of the antics of his father and older brother Stan, which cause the family to be deemed “trash”. Stan and his father are not without redeeming qualities, as they are skilled in the “manly arts” of fixing cars, fighting and attracting women. Things come to a head when Stan is accused of the disappearance and later murder of a promising local boy with whom he had a very public feud. To complicate matters the dead boy’s sister is Jack’s first love interest, Myra Joyner. Confused Jack turns to a local jeweler, Moses Gladstein, for advice and stability.
The doomed alliance of the Joyner family and the Witcher family reads like a modern day Romeo and Juliet. The setting of the story, a southern town in the summer of 1967, is sensual and vivid with memorable details: Jack’s brother wearing sunglasses and getting high in the woods; Jack’s father playing the blues with a black friend, oblivious to his neighbors’ prejudices; Jack kissing Myra in an elegant living room at their neighbor’s pool party. It’s a murder story, a love story, and a coming-of-age story all in one, told with humor and acuity. I look forward to reading more of Wetta’s work!
I am a huge fan of Joanne Harris and have thoroughly enjoyed all of her books. Five Quarters of the Orange is probably one of my favorites. Harris has a unique writing style for all of her books and in this one, she writes the book like the main character, Framboise is just sitting around telling a story to a friend over coffee. Reading the story, I felt comfortable as “Framboise’s friend” and enjoyed her tale of adolescence in Nazi occupied France. In the beginning of the story, she casually tells us “I know, I know. You want me to get to the point… It has taken me fifty-five years to begin. At least let me do it in my own way.”
Harris’ use of details and descriptions helped to paint a vivid picture in my mind of Framboise’s childhood. I liked the way Harris described her older sister Reine-Claude in comparison to Framboise, “At twelve, my sister has already ripened. Soft and sweet as dark honey, with amber eyes and autumn hair… next to her I looked like a frog, my mother told me, an ugly skinny little frog with my wide sullen mouth and my big hands and big feet.” The book describes the conflict of mother and daughter relationships. Harris shows that no matter how badly we don’t want to end up like our parents, we can’t help but to inherit some of their qualities.
Many years later, Framboise has returned to the village and lives under another name. She has bought the old farm, and made a nice little restaurant there. No one must know that she is the daughter of her notorious mother. Through most of the book, the story builds to telling us the awful event that drove her family from the village and made them so hated. At the same time, there is a subplot about her brother’s son and his wife, who seem to be poised to let the secret out. What will happen?
That is the crux of the story. But what always makes Harris’s books so fine is the beauty of her writing, the way she weaves a story with interesting characters and unexpected motivations.
My Travel Book Club read and discussed this book a few years ago and it was one of our most enjoyable discussions. The title is a little off-putting, but after reading a few chapters, it becomes apparent that it’s just Troost’s wickedly wry sense of humor.
After finishing grad school, Troost found himself unemployed with little in prospects. Fortunately his girlfriend, Sylvia, landed a job on the island of Tarawa in the Republic of Kiribati. Troost tagged along with plans to write a novel. Once in Tarawa, Maarten spends most of his days as a glorified beach bum – bodysurfing, reading, and kibitzing with locals.
The couple dealt with severe culture shock. Maarten and Sylvia often had no power, water, or even food. Dogs constantly threatened them and the lack of sanitation was shocking. There are dozens of great anecdotes from their experiences. For instance:
- Maarten found that he could not drive on payday because so many people were lying down on the road – passed out drunk.
- When Maarten asked the Minister of Health why cigarettes were so cheap. The Minister replied “otherwise, people couldn’t afford them.”
- Maarten learned more than he wanted to know about the beautiful ocean when he discovered how people dealt with the lack of indoor plumbing.
The story of life on Tarawa would be good enough to make a great book regardless of the author. But Troost’s wit makes the book a great read. Many of the subjects that he discusses seem mundane but Troost makes them interesting and engaging for the reader. Make sure to check out Troost’s other catchy titles Getting Stoned with Savages and Lost on Planet China.
“What’s for dinner?” Probably the hardest question facing Americans every day. As omnivores we have endless choices and today’s supermarkets have miles of aisles of food to satisfy our needs, but maybe too many choices are not such a good thing.
My Book Club recently read and discussed this thought provoking look at the state of food and dining in America. By far one of our most lively and heated discussions we have ever had. Nothing brings people together like food and at the same time divides us as well. The author begins the book by discussing what is the American Paradox vs. let’s say the French Paradox. The French Paradox is that as a country they consume more fat and calories than most nations, but are one of the healthiest. The American Paradox is that although we aspire to healthy eating, we are one of the least healthy industrialized nations in the world. The author attributes this to several factors with one common denominator, corn.
Corn has become the basis of most of the food consumed by Americans. In fact, we consume so much corn it has actually altered the human genome. Take a look at some typical McDonald’s menu offerings and the percentage of corn and corn byproducts they contain:
Soda: 100% Milk Shake: 78% Salad Dressing: 65% Chicken Nuggets: 56% Cheeseburger: 52% French Fries: 23%
Corn, in the wrong hands, can be used for some terrible things, among them high fructose corn syrup (a major player in the obesity epidemic) and as feed for cows (who get sick when they eat it, requiring anti-biotics!) chickens and now even farm raised fish are forced to eat corn. The governments continued subsidizing of the corn industry has made us find even more ways to use corn, i.e. ethanol which requires more energy to produce than it provides.
Omnivore’s Dilemma may not be for the faint of heart but it is a great look at where food comes from, how it’s processed and how agricultural production differs from large scale to small. Michael Pollan took the time to answer a question that we all ask frequently….”what’s for dinner?” I highly recommend his book for its educational approach and warm writing style.
Visit Pollan’s website for more information.
The only book that I can compare The Egyptologist to would be one of my other all-time favorites, The Prestige. Both of these books are supremely well-executed exercises in the unreliable narrator. As with The Prestige, The Egyptologist consists entirely of either journal entries or letters written to and from the main characters of the novel. This lack of knowledge given to the reader ends up making the entire novel a crazy thrill-ride where you, the reader, are called upon to make your own judgments about what is really happening. There is no simple point in the book where some omniscient narrator tells you what happened. There are at least two people constantly telling you different versions of the same story, and you are left wondering who to believe.
Ralph Trilipush is an aspiring archaeologist with a sordid, mysterious past. Ralph is the discoverer of what appears to be ancient Egyptian pornography: The Admonitions of Atum-hadu. Atum-hadu is thought to be a pharaoh that never existed, but Ralph isn’t so sure that he wasn’t a real king. So Ralph sets out to Egypt to uncover the tomb of Atum-hadu. Meanwhile, back in Boston where Ralph’s fiancee and creditors are waiting for him, Harry Ferrell, a private detective who came on to this case through an entirely different case, is starting to suspect Trilipush of foul play, and voices his concerns to involved parties, which starts a chain of events leading to a mind-blowing conclusion.
The Egyptologist is truly everything one could want in a novel. Great characters, interesting plot and great writing. Throughout the entire book, Phillips maintains a darkly comic tone to all these events, especially in the journals of Ralph Trilipush. But once the reader reaches the final climax of the book, the last 40 pages are some of the spookiest, most disturbing that I have ever read.
I loved this book. The Slap is an edgy, daring, in-your-face story of some very interesting and crude characters living in and around Melbourne, Australia. The writing is forceful, almost violent in its direct intensity. The author pulls no punches and writes about the casual depravity of ordinary people in an ordinary suburban setting.
At the center of the story is an incident that happened at a nice Sunday picnic in a Melbourne Park. Bratty 3-year-old Hugo is terrorizing the adult guests and bullying the other children. When he goes too far and physically threatens a child, the father slaps him. Of course havoc ensues and the reader gets to hear from all the voices of the guests at the picnic.
The book has overt sexual scenes and obscene language which might offend some readers. However, I didn’t think the sex and language was used in a gratuitous way. It seemed intrinsic to the story. Tsiolkas writes very well and movingly about relationships. Relationships of all sorts; between parents and children, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters. Even between bosses and employees. No main character gets off easy in Tsiolkas’s telling. All have faults – some more grievous than others – and most are not likable. But do characters in a book need to be likable? No, but they have to be interesting. The reader has to be interested enough in them to continue on to the end of the story. And these characters ARE interesting. Interesting uptake on modern suburban life.
I was lucky enough to read this novel (which I strongly recommend) without having known about the real-life murder on which it’s based. If you’re tempted to read it and don’t know about that murder yet either, I suggest waiting until afterward to find out about it. The novel’s suspense will work better for you that way, and anyway, it’s not really about that murder; instead Giardina uses the actual event as a springboard for a thoughtful, poignantly observed consideration of what happens to markedly ethnic guys who climb up the social scale and become bleached-out “white guys.” Race, class, gender, and sexuality all come into play in intriguing, believable, unforced ways, even if the final messages about how these whitened guys might have lived better lives gets a little muddled.
Early on, protagonist Timmy O’Kane is an Irish American member of a group of Italian American friends. As teenagers they horse around in familiar ways, but one boy, Billy, is rougher than the others, more virile, edgy, and dangerous. Soon, Billy stays behind and leads a working-class life while the others go from “wise guys” to “white guys,” by going to college and then by finding appropriate houses, kids, and wives in the suburbs. As you might expect, these typical yuppies soon realize during regular steak-booze-and-cigar gatherings that despite their apparent success, something is missing. I found the plot gripping and the characters very believable.
Info about the murder that the book is loosely based on.
“The Blinks,” a worldwide epidemic, has infected the human population. Its origin is unknown – only that it is the product of a Coca-Cola promotion gone horribly wrong. And as humanity ends all that remains is the solitary Laura Byrd, struggling to survive alone in Antarctica, with only her memories to keep her company.
Brockmeier weaves a most original tale of a plausible and not-so-distant future, in which the apocalypse is a manmade occurrence. Also unique in Brockmeier’s work is the integration of the City, a place where the “living-dead,” (those who have died, but can still be recalled in memory by the living who knew them), reside after they have passed on. The living-dead’s lives continue as normal in the City, and they receive, in a sense, a second chance at life. Eventually, the only people left in the City are those remembered by Laura, due to the fact that she is the last person alive on earth. The chapters switch back and forth between Laura’s lonely ordeal and the confusion of the City’s denizens, who find their world to be, quite literally, shrinking.
Overall, this book is engaging; easy to read, but steeped in philosophical meaning. It explores the question of true death; if we leave an impression on those we left behind, have we truly left at all? Brockmeier’s work can be viewed as a new-age classic, serving as a window to a prospective, believable world. A fresh, original plot makes The Brief History of the Dead the perfect addition to any summer reading list.