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November 23, 2014

The Goldfinch


The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Fiction
2013 Hachette Audio
Reader: David Pittu
Finished on October 9, 2014
Rating:3.5/5 (Good)




Publisher’s Blurb:

Composed with the skills of a master, The Goldfinch is a haunted odyssey through present-day America and a drama of enthralling force and acuity.

It begins with a boy. Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his longing for his mother, he clings to the one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the criminal underworld.

As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love—and his talisman, the painting, places him at the center of a narrowing, even more dangerous circle.

The Goldfinch is a novel of striking narrative energy and power. It combines unforgettably vivid characters, mesmerizing language, and breathtaking suspense, while plumbing with a philosopher’s calm the deepest mysteries of love, identity, and art. It is a beautiful, stay-up-all-night-and-tell-all-your-friends triumph, an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the ruthless machinations of fate.

I’m not even going to try to discuss the literary merit (or lack thereof) of this novel, as there are numerous articles available on the Internet that debate both sides of this argument. I, however, am not a critic, nor am I a literary scholar. When I select book to read, I either trust an author’s past history with books I’ve previously read or I rely on word-of-mouth, whether from fellow bloggers, co-workers, friends or relatives. I look forward to each new book, hopeful that I will be both entertained and enlightened.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, The Goldfinch is THE most talked about novel of 2014. Weighing in at 771 pages, it was not up for debate as to whether I would read the print version or listen to the audio. I do most of my reading in bed, so the weight alone was enough to convince me to listen rather than read. This format is always a nice way to pass the time at work before the store opens, but, honestly, Theo’s internal monologue went on and on and on! The beginning of the novel is very compelling and I couldn’t wait to find an opportunity to listen to another chapter, but unfortunately the pacing is uneven and the book began to feel like a slog (albeit a nonetheless compelling train wreck of a slog) by the midpoint. Tartt is quite a storyteller, though, and I remained curious, anxious to see how it would all play out in the end for Theo. Plus, David Pittu is an excellent reader (with a great Russian accent), so I stuck with it and finished the novel in just under six weeks. It’s a good thing I didn’t choose to read the ebook edition, as I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have had the patience to see it to the very end. With that said, the story and characters are embedded in my memory, as is the case with most of the audiobooks I’ve experienced. Will they remain? That is yet to be seen.

Final Thoughts:

Masterful? Perhaps to some. Immense? Without a doubt. Worthwhile? Debatable. Lyrical? No. (If you’re looking for a lyrical work of literature, once again I highly recommend All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.) Regrettable? I’m not sorry I read The Goldfinch (as a bookseller, it’s always good to be knowledgeable about the bestsellers, particularly during the holiday madness season), but I doubt it’s one about which I’ll gush to a tentative customer.

How about you? Have you read this chunkster? Do I dare try The Secret History, which has been languishing on my shelves for years?

November 19, 2014

November 17, 2014

Delicious!



Delicious! by Ruth Reichl
Fiction
2014
Finished on September 23, 2014
Rating: 3.5/5 (Good)




Publisher’s Blurb:

Ruth Reichl is a born storyteller. Through her restaurant reviews, where she celebrated the pleasures of a well-made meal, and her best-selling memoirs that address our universal feelings of love and loss, Reichl has achieved a special place in the hearts of hundreds of thousands of readers. Now, with this magical debut novel, she has created a sumptuous, wholly realized world that will enchant you.

Billie Breslin has traveled far from her home in California to take a job at Delicious!, New York’s most iconic food magazine. Away from her family, particularly her older sister, Genie, Billie initially feels like a fish out of water—until she is welcomed by the magazine’s colorful staff. She is also seduced by the vibrant downtown food scene, especially by Fontanari’s, the famous Italian food shop where she works on weekends. Then Delicious! is abruptly shut down, but Billie agrees to stay on in the empty office, maintaining the hotline for reader complaints in order to pay her bills.

To Billie’s surprise, the lonely job becomes the portal to a miraculous discovery. In a hidden room in the magazine’s library, Billie finds a cache of letters written during World War II by Lulu Swan, a plucky twelve-year-old, to the legendary chef James Beard. Lulu’s letters provide Billie with a richer understanding of history, and a feeling of deep connection to the young writer whose courage in the face of hardship inspires Billie to come to terms with her fears, her big sister, and her ability to open her heart to love.

It’s been many, many years since I first read Ruth Reichl’s witty memoir, Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table. As I recall, I enjoyed the first half of that book much more than the second half, laughing aloud at some of her childhood memories, as well as her anecdotes about her mother, “the notorious food-poisoner known forevermore as the Queen of Mold.” When Delicious! first appeared on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, I knew I had to give it a try, especially after reading so many glowing reviews by fellow bloggers. I quickly fell into Billie’s new life in New York, enjoying all the foodie details and atmosphere of both the city and the publisher’s offices, when the narrative shifted abruptly. As is my custom, I hadn’t read the publisher’s blurb prior to reading the novel, so I wasn’t prepared for the sudden demise of the fictitious magazine, Delicious! While I enjoyed the letters between Lulu Swan and James Beard, I preferred the foodie aspect of the novel more than the contrived World War II storyline.

Final Thoughts:

Part culinary fiction, part historical fiction (with a predictable mystery thrown in for good measure), this ambitious debut novel was a bit too bland for this reader. Good but definitely not delicious!

November 12, 2014

Bird's-Eye View (IV)








America's Finest City
San Diego, CA
October 2014

Click on photo for full-size viewing.

November 10, 2014

Paris Letters



Paris Letters by Janice MacLeod
Memoir
2014 Sourcebooks
Finished on September 2, 2014
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)





Publisher’s Blurb:

Finding love and freedom in a pen, a paintbrush… and Paris

How much money does it take to quit your job?

Exhausted and on the verge of burnout, Janice poses this question to herself as she doodles on a notepad at her desk. Surprisingly, the answer isn’t as daunting as she expected. With a little math and a lot of determination, Janice cuts back, saves up, and buys herself two years of freedom in Europe.

A few days into her stop in Paris, Janice meets Christophe, the cute butcher down the street—who doesn’t speak English. Through a combination of sign language and franglais, they embark on a whirlwind Paris romance. She soon realizes that she can never return to the world of twelve-hour workdays and greasy corporate lingo. But her dwindling savings force her to find a way to fund her dreams again. So Janice turns to her three loves—words, art, and Christophe—to figure out a way to make her happily-ever-after in Paris last forever.

Another selection for the 2014 Paris in July reading challenge, this one turned out to be a winner! I managed to read the entire book in just one week, which these days is a huge accomplishment for me. Littered with two dozen Post-It Notes, this book is one I plan to hang on to for future reference, right next to Eloisa James’ Paris in Love. I don’t know when, but I’m definitely planning to visit Paris… someday!





Inspiration to De-Clutter:
By night, I moved on from my closets to delve into my cupboards. I tossed dried-up nail polishes and hairbrushes. I only used one hairbrush. Why did I have six? I used up the rest of my teeth whitening gel. I gave up on and tossed the recipes I’d clipped for dishes I never made. I tossed the free CD of weird music I never listen to from that yoga class I stopped going to. The old yoga mat, the deflated yoga ball, the broken yoga straps, the expired yoga membership…tossed. Half-filled journals of half-baked ideas, the stack of phone books from the last five years [who uses phones books anymore?!], broken flowerpots that I kept with thoughts of making something crafty from them, the broken frames I meant to fix…tossed. Makeup samples, swag from film industry party gift bags, sunglasses with scratches [eh-hem], a home phone even though I didn’t have a land line anymore, chargers for cell phones I didn’t have anymore, computer boxes for computers I didn’t have either, instruction manuals for electronics that I didn’t even remember having, the wrong-sized vacuum bags I never returned, checkbooks for accounts I no longer had…tossed. And loyalty cards that promised savings on everything I bought. Tossed. I’d save more by not buying.

This brought a smile to my face:

By June, the sixth month into my journaling year, I had crossed plenty off my list of unfinished business and let go of many items, such as most of my books and one of my guitars. I was ruthless. I knew, without knowing where I was going, that I wouldn’t need this stuff when I got there.

But one item stopped me in my tracks.

My Kris Kristofferson album.

I haven’t owned a record player since my single-digit years, but I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of this album. This record was pilfered from my parents’ collection. When I was a kid, I would gawk at this album cover and stare into his steely blue eyes. Kris Kristofferson was a real artist. A great lyricist and a pretty good actor. When I looked at Kris, I thought, “This guy is so good at everything he does. And what he does is so cool. I want to do something cool.” I kept the album.

On the magic of bookstores:

My haste to get outside is based on an exciting call I received after lunch. The book I ordered has arrived at the local English bookstore. There is something poetic about a good old-fashioned bookstore. I used to have Amazon deliver books to my door. I’ve always had a love for mail. And these days, I’ll be the first to brag about the convenience and pleasure of e-books. The instant access to English books in a French-speaking land is a magical delight. But there is magic in traditional bookstores too. It’s a magic you can feel in the air. The smell of aging paper, of ink, and of people. And in Paris, some of those people were Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

Final Thoughts:

This delightful memoir, with its black-and-white drawings and countless travel suggestions, is the perfect armchair guide to "La Ville-Lumière.” Not only do I plan to peruse it again at a later date, I’ve also just discovered the author’s blog, which I know will keep me entertained for many, many months. Paris Letters is all that Eat Pray Love hoped to be, but without the prayer and the navel-gazing.

November 5, 2014

Wordless Wednesday


October 2014
Del Mar, California

November 4, 2014

That Part Was True



That Part Was True by Deborah McKinlay
Fiction
2014 Grand Central Publishing
Finished on August 21, 2014
Rating: 4.5/5 (Very Good!)


 

Publisher’s Blurb:

I’m sending you, hopefully unscathed, a jar of my favorite chili jelly. Serve it with corn fritters.

You’ll thank me.

~Jack

I am sending you Grandmother’s Christmas Cake recipe. She was not my grandmother. She was the grandmother of a school friend of mine… I made my ginger biscuits (what you might call cookies) once for Erica’s grandmother and she gave me this recipe in return. It made me feel at the time as though I were a treasured granddaughter, and I have that same marvelous belonging feeling every time I make the cake, which I do, every Christmas.

Perhaps you will, too.

~Eve

When British lover of novels Eve Petworth writes to successful American author Jackson Cooper to praise a scene in one of his books, they discover a mutual love of cooking and food, sparking a relationship that transforms both their lives. As their friendship blossoms, the details of their unsettled lives unfold for one another: Jack has a colorful group of friends and a rotating group of admiring young women in his love life, but he feels ultimately unsatisfied.

Eve, who had a distant relationship with her own mother, is now struggling to overcome the tension she has with her own soon-to-be married daughter.

Now when each of them offers, from behind the veils of semi-anonymity and distance, wise and increasingly affectionate counsel to the other, they both begin to confront their problems and plan a celebratory meeting in Paris—a meeting that Eve fears can never happen.

Dear Mr Cooper,

I could probably contact you more directly by e-mail, but the effort of handwriting will encourage me to choose my words carefully and I am conscious that I am writing to an author.

I wanted to tell you that I enjoyed your book ‘Dead Letters’ very much. The scene where Harry Gordon eats the peach (‘leaning over and holding back his green silk tie with one arm while the juice christened the shirt cuff of the other’) introduced a moment of summer into a watery English day. And it reminded me, as well, of the most decadent pleasure that comes with eating fully mature fruit—sadly, a rarity.

With best wishes,

Eve Petworth

And so begins Deborah McKinaly’s delightful novel, That Part Was True.

After several heavy reads and a few disappointments, it was so refreshing to pick up McKinlay’s novel and fall immediately under the spell of her lovely writing. Part epistolary, part love story, this charming book could have easily turned out to be a contrived, silly “romance,” but that was simply not the case. Eve and Jack and the novel’s supporting cast of characters are fully fleshed-out and the dialogue rings true. While I enjoy a novel set during World War II, it was refreshing to read a contemporary book set in England, with a culinary backdrop, and the exchange of letters and recipes (via snail mail, not email!) between two strangers.

On Friendship and Food:
Maybe she wasn’t fair. Maybe she was dark and round. Everything about her was comforting. Her simple name, the recipes, the way she wrote. She wrote well—plainly and directly, but at times lyrically. His food friend. It seemed at times his best friend. Mutton is good with plums, she’d said.

I liked hearing about the plums, he wrote. Eve had told him about the tree in her garden. She could see if from her kitchen window and she marked the seasons by it. She could not bear waste, she said, and maybe the love of cooking had started there. She never wanted to see the fruit, the beautiful rich ripe fruit with its soft bloom, lying abandoned and rotting. She liked something to come of it. She liked to see the jars of preserves lining her larder. Took real pleasure in it—the regularity of it. And then, of course, the taste. The closer the cook was to picking, the better the taste was. The intensity of flavor was lost so quickly.

I know what you mean about the effect of proximity to flavor, he wrote:

It’s the same with fish. I used to go out to Nantucket at New Year’s, just before the final dive. Just before the water was too cold for the divers. I’d go there just to eat scallops. The last of them so rich tasting and yet clean at the same time.

It’s strange how these missives from Eve, so recently added, were fast becoming part of the fabric of his life. When he read them, he felt like himself. Like his best self. He detected on her ivory-headed notepaper the fine, fresh scent of herbs.

On Reading:
At first she'd read fast, as if she were clinging to a moving vehicle, pulled along by the pace of the plot. But then she'd slowed, deliberately, to appreciate the writing—the humor in the choppy sentences, the evocative descriptions of meals and scenery. She'd felt the heat when there was heat, and the fear when there was fear, and the loneliness that underlay the story coming off the page. It had done what good stories always do, made her forget her own.

On Simple Pleasures:
The next day Jack got up late. The sea and the sky were merged and steely, and there was a heavy frost. He lit a fire and put on some music. Then, in a kitchen unencumbered by pretension or waste, he sliced six onions and put them in a heavy skillet in some melted butter on a low heat. Conscious of the pleasant sensation of sighing contentment—Jack found the process of caramelizing onions as warming as a hot bath—he left the pan and the butter to do their work and went back to the fire and sat down with a book.
and
Eve made the bed as precisely as she did everything else, and drew the same sense of pleasure from its smoothed surface as she did from the rows of preserves labeled and dated in the pantry. She was feeling terribly, unaccustomedly content; she had the weekend to herself. She had enjoyed the visits from Ollie and Izzy, so much more frequent lately, but quiet had always been restorative to Eve. The thought of a whole weekend alone in a well-stocked house, with just a book and a fire for company, made her feel calm, protected from sudden eddies. Despite her progress, she still needed these havens.

Final Thoughts:

With a perfect (yet unpredictable) finale, That Part Was True is the proverbial Feel Good read that is sure to delight readers who fell in love with Me Before You, 84, Charing Cross Road, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and The Shell Seekers. This is such a perfect book to curl up with on a rainy Sunday afternoon, along with a cup of hot tea and a couple of slices of buttered toast with cinnamon sugar or homemade jam. My only complaint? I didn’t want it to end. And now I have another great book to recommend to customers this holiday season. (All the Light We Cannot See is the other title I will recommend enthusiastically.) I eagerly anticipate McKinlay’s next endeavor!