Beautiful Lies by Lisa Unger

From the start, Beautiful Lies by Lisa Unger is suspenseful, engaging and full of twists and turns. The main appeal, though, is Ridley Jones, whose tidy, enjoyable life is turned upside down one morning when she rescues a small child from getting hit by a car. This act of heroism and the attendant publicity brings out people from her past, causing her to doubt her parents, long-time family friends, and everything she’s believed about her life up until that point.

A freelance journalist living in a cozy East Village apartment, she goes on the run, investigating a man claiming to be her father, and  a shadowy group dedicated to finding homes for abandoned children. She’s not sure who she can trust. She’s not even sure of her new neighbor and love interest, who helps her with her investigation but seems too professional in his skills for someone who claims to be an artist.

While you’re reading this, you’re quite aware that this is very firmly rooted in the thriller genre, and is pure escapism. But it’s artfully done, and Ridley’s re-examination of lifelong assumptions and philosophical musings make it a cut above those churned out by authors turned corporations.

Bibliophilia

Bibliophilia, by N. John Hall, is an epistolary novel and, even though the correspondence is via email, it could just as well be letters that arrive by mail . Larry Dickerson develops relationships with Christie’s auction house staff, academics and other book experts as he educates himself about the art of book collecting. His enthusiasm is contagious; he isn’t afraid of appearing naïve or uneducated. He asks the questions that the reader would ask, and the answers he receives are a mixture of the personal and the professional.

Some of their respect and interest may be due to the fact that Larry is newly rich, having sold his great-great grandfather’s correspondence with some noted Victorian authors for  $400,000 – a portion of which he  plans to invest in collecting rare books. Larry always tries to tie his collecting to something he has an interest in, so he begins with Victorians such as Dickens, Thackeray, and Trollope. Along the way, he learns about  printing and publishing history – in both the U.S. and England, condition, inscriptions and book jackets – all of which affect the value of  books, whether they are first editions or not.

Soon, his correspondence leads him to New Yorker writers and cartoonists; he begins to collect J.D. Salinger, Roth, Updike, James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, and others. It’s fun to get a quick overview of these authors, as well as famed New Yorker editors Harold Ross and William Shawn.

There is a subplot about fraud in the world of rare books – an entertaining way to learn about the underbelly of unscrupulous book dealers. Bibliophilia is an interesting mix of a sort of superficial, middlebrow learning and literary enthusiasm.

 

 

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Fowler

For me, this was an ideal book-on-cd. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves  by Karen Fowler was an optimum balance between fascinating exposition – about animal behavior, the ethics of scientific theory and experiments – in and out of the lab, and novelistic appeal. Rosemary, the narrator, is an interesting mix of reliable (she addresses the reader and seems to be candid) but also unreliable (memories are faulty especially when critical parts of the story take place in early childhood).

I love to be lectured to, not in the you’ve-done-something-wrong sense, but in the academic sense, where you are given information in a logical and well-thought-out way. I learned a lot about psychology, and  primate and human behavior, as well as memory.

Sometimes this was difficult to listen to – Fowler does an amazing job of showing us our ability to minimize the pain of confusion of animals. The human and animal characters in this story are not abstractions; they are unique and complicated beings, and their pain is our pain. The humans behave in ways that are understandable but not always very likeable.

It’s also a mystery. Early in the book, Rosemary says that she’s lost two siblings. Little by little, she reveals who went missing and why. Even the title is a bit of a mystery, and there’s an a-ha! moment when you realize it’s significance. There’s so much to think about, and to talk about; I’m dying to discuss!

How to Be a Grown-Up by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus

How to be a grown-upCo-written by Nicola Kraus and Emma McLaughlin, How to Be a Grown-Up is a fascinating peek into upper class New York and the world of start-up websites – in this case, one for upper class babies and their parents. More than a little absurd, this world of over-consumption and ambitious, yet inexperienced, young bosses is the one in which Rory finds herself – after her husband, an  aspiring actor, dumps her.

Kraus and McLaughlin are the authors of The Nanny Diaries,and there are definite similarities – in the dynamic between the very rich and those struggling to get by. Some of the scenes do seem to be written filmically; we can almost see a  Scarlett Johansson or Anne Hathaway-type breaking her foot as she juggles the impossible demands of her tyrannical bosses and the equally formidable demands of her two children, while teetering on five-inch heels.

The most successful part of the book is the satire of the workplace – the two young entrepreneurs in charge of the start-up dress in the skimpiest of outfits no matter how cold they are, and regard “things” such as wastebaskets and a work space as unnecessarily retro. It’s satisfying to see the tables turned, and  Rory’s experience and know-how are acknowledged as valuable.

If the authors had focused more on the work aspect of the book and less on the inexplicable choices Rory makes in her personal life, the book would have, in my opinion, been better for it. Still, it’s a revealing and interesting look into a very fast-paced world, not well-known in Iowa – even in the metro Quad-Cities.

Barbara

BarbaraBarbaraa German language film, subtitled in English, is a fascinating glimpse into the Cold War. Nina Hoss plays Barbara, a doctor who has been exiled to rural East Germany from Berlin for reasons that are not clear. That is a theme of the film – the viewer is not sure what Barbara did or is doing now that is subversive, but we know that she is now secretly working against the government. She is suddenly, and seemingly randomly harassed. She suffers these indignities with a stoicism that is, ironically, nakedly apparent on her expressive face.

Unsurprisingly, she holds herself aloof and apart from the other staff – in particular, Andre, another doctor. The dialogue between these two, and others, is minimal and subdued – much of the power of the film lies in the close-ups of these two characters faces.  Even though it is suffused with paranoia, the film is beautiful and evocative of a simpler and less-technological time.

A mixture of the political and the romantic, this is primarily the portrait of a particular woman who maintains her dignity and integrity during a time when trust was not given easily or thoughtlessly. And when real emotion breaks out, it is all the more powerful for having been restrained.

Talking with Cats and Dogs by Tim Link

Talking with Dogs and Cats by Tim LinkI don’t know what I expected when I started reading Talking with Dogs and Cats, but it wasn’t what I got. I’ve read quite a few of the animal behavior books we have in the library, and this one is unique.  It was actually pretty gratifying to know that, instinctively, I’ve been doing a lot of things the author, Tim Link, suggests. For example, he encourages us to talk to our pets – not just a lot of orders and instructions, but greet them in the morning and when you come home from work. When they go to the window and bark madly, walk over and try to see what set them off. Acknowledge the squirrel or UPS man, and thank them for bringing it to your attention. Tell them when to stop and reward them for stopping.

Pets need to feel that they have a job, and that job may be watching out that window and letting you know what’s going on in the wide world. Yelling at them to be quiet is likely to be ineffective, and, actually, counterproductive.

When you have multiple pets, it’s hard not to have a favorite, but you still need to spend time and pay focused attention to the others. You’ll be rewarded with a better understanding of the animal and a better relationship. I can attest to this. Since reading the book, I’ve made a point of communing with the dog who is not my favorite – an dachshund whose single-minded dedication to finding any edible object and barking about it, does not usually make one want to spend discretionary time with him. His sister, on the other hand, is incredibly loveable and has many interests other than seeking out and swallowing things before she’s quite clear about what they are.

Anyway, Mini Mutt and I have been having one-on-one conversations and I really feel that we have been connecting. When we run out of things to talk about, we sit companionably together. It’s very nice to have these calm times to balance  other times where we’re both shouting in our own ways.

You may not agree with every bit of advice in this book, but any book that causes you to look at things from another’s point of view is always valuable.

Life and Other Near-Death Experiences by Camille Pagan

Life and Other Near DeathLibby Miller finds out (on the same day) that her husband is not at all who she thought he was, and their marriage was not what she thought it was. And that she has terminal illness.  The internal monologues make you wonder how you, too, would cope with a day like that. For me, the first half of the book was most interesting, as Libby struggles to cope with seismic shifts in every aspect of her life – her job, her home, her health, and her family.  She begins to realize that nothing at all in her life will ever be the same.  This Camille Pagan novel is written in the first-person, so we are privy to her wildly swinging emotions. Her reaction to her husband’s news is both horrifying and funny.

Life and Other Near-Death Experiences  is an odd amalgam of standard fiction and chick-lit. Some of the latter’s conventions are apparent – the tone is self-effacing and self-mocking, the main character is young (ish) and attractive, and good at her professional job – though she is a PA to a horrible boss. There is a spirit of re-invention, and, inevitably, a romance with a man who is a soul-mate, rather than someone she has stayed with, out of habit.

However, the reader (or this reader, anyway) had certain expectations about the illness that were not met, so it didn’t follow a typical airport fiction trajectory.(No spoilers here).  The tone often veers into pretty dark territory – the illness and death of Libby’s mother is a driving factor in how Libby deals with her diagnosis. The result is that the reader is thrown off balance, and isn’t quite sure where the story is going. It’s a novel with a high-concept plot that delves deeper than expected.

 

 

First Impressions

First ImpressionsFirst Impressions by Charlie Lovett is subtitled “a novel of old books, unexpected love, and Jane Austen.” It’s a quick read, quickly alternating between the present day and 1796 when Jane Austen herself is in the midst of writing early drafts of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice (or is she?) There’s some doubt as to whether she or a good friend and fellow author mentored her or whether he actually wrote Pride and Prejudice.

Lovett does a good job of organically integrating historical information about Austen and her books. It doesn’t feel like you’re being fed lessons from high school English, but as if you are really beginning to know Jane and what motivated her to write the stories that she did.

In between chapters about Jane Austen are those that focus on Sophie Collingwood. Her family owns a large estate, as well as an important library of books that contain important clues to the first editions of Pride and Prejudice.  A recent graduate of Oxford and an expert in antiquarian books thanks to her uncle Bertram. Sophie becomes involved in literary intrigue, in which she and others try to untangle the early works of Austen, and those of her friend, Reverend Richard Mansfield.

Suspense builds as Sophie, some shadowy rivals, and two suitors try to solve the mystery. Lovett does a good job of laying the groundwork, so the ending is unexpected yet grounded in the information the reader has been given. For example, subsequent generations of the Mansfield’s and Austen’s publisher are revealed to be active participants in the contemporary mystery.

The Guest Cottage by Nancy Thayer

Guest CottageThe Guest Cottage by Nancy Thayer is a great companion to Enchanted August (see blog post of July 15th). Not only are both set in idyllic New England islands, both novels  are self-limiting in that the cottage rental is for the month of August. (Is this a east coast thing? It seems very exotic to this midwesterner).

The knowledge that this a short-term co-habitation allows for a pleasantly predictable dramatic arc (meet-cute, attraction, development of romance and friendship, sadness of the looming end of summer).

The characters in both books are suffering from unsatisfactory or dysfunctional family situations, and are looking for healing, as well as escape, however brief. They find all this, as well as transformation and joy.

This is the first Nancy Thayer book I’ve read, and I’m happy to find that she has many more in her backlist. She actually lives in Nantucket so her writing has the ring of authority.

What is therapeutic is the satisfaction she obviously takes in the quotidian tasks of cooking, grocery shopping,  cleaning up, and so on. Life on the island also consists of going to the beach, sailing, visiting quaint shops and getting ice cream. One could do a lot worse than spending time in these fictional worlds.

Modern Farmer

Modern FarmerYou may notice a new magazine at the Fairmount branch. Modern Farmer is a quarterly hipster/agriculture magazine . It’s a fascinating combination of actual horticultural information but with a  small-is-better vibe. There is no pretense that they are the voice of big ag. “We’re making fun of ourselves, in a way, because we don’t know anything about farming,” said former editor-in-chief Ann Marie Gardner.

The sophisticated design aesthetic is  an interesting contrast to the stories about goats, cows and pigs.  Recent stories feature news about a bird flu vaccine, as well as Brad Pitt. Some of the most inspiring articles are about young men and women trying and succeeding in diverse ventures – such as a husband-wife team of alpaca farmers in New York, a woman raising quail in California, and three young people growing papayas, coconut and other fruits and vegetables in Bali.

The magazine, founded in 2013, is struggling. It actually suspended operations earlier this year, then promised a summer issue. We hope that they can overcome their financial difficulties. It fills a unique niche, with  a point-of-view not seen in mainstream magazine publishing.