Friday, August 17, 2007

Summer Reading

Summer is almost two-thirds over and I have the uncomfortable feeling that I haven’t had enough good “summer reads” this year. When I was traveling in Italy I got to read for hours a day, but since my return I haven’t gotten back my rhythm. What that really means is that I haven’t read any truly satisfying books.

My favorite books so far this summer:

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. This isn’t a new book (it was an LBC pick last summer) When I first picked it up a few years ago I couldn’t get into it, but I devoured it on my second attempt. It’s a series of linked murders that go unsolved for decades. It’s utterly engrossing and keeps the reader guessing.

First Fire by C.J. Box. I don’t read a lot of mysteries but I have read every book in this series about a Wyoming game warden whose main job is to prevent wildlife poaching but who often finds himself in the thick of murder and corruption. The first book in the series was fabulous, and the rest less so, until now. I am happy to report that the latest book is as good as the first.

House of Mondavi by Julia Flynn Siler. I’ve written extensively about Julie, a good friend. While I read much of this book in manuscript, I hadn’t sat down and read the whole thing from front to back. Once I started, I couldn’t stop, and found myself angry when I got distracted. This is really a fun read and I am not just saying that because Julie is my friend.

Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster. I saw a sign in a bookstore that declared this a “perfect novel.” Shortly thereafter a friend told me how much she enjoyed this story of a recently divorced man who sheds his suburban life for a new home in the bustling city. This is a story about the new American family, one blended because of love and proximity, not blood.

I got this email from Ilana DeBare, a friend and business writer at the Chronicle:

“It's not often I get excited enough to want to start spewing out emails about a book, but I just read one that I wanted to share. Anyway, it's called The Septembers of Shiraz, by Dalia Sofer, and it just came out in hardcover. It's about a wealthy Jewish Iranian family where the father, a gem cutter, is imprisoned by the revolutionary regime shortly after the overthrow of the Shah. The book alternates between the father in prison, the mother, the son who is stranded in Brooklyn studying architecture, and the nine year old daughter. It is a truly horrifying glimpse of the Iranian revolution. But it is also a nuanced picture of a marriage that has dulled over time, and love and regret; of how even non-identified Jews can't escape their identity; class dynamics between servants and their employers; and what happens when people who have been accustomed to status, luxury and comfort their whole lives suddenly find it taken away. It's a great book.”

Some less well-loved reads:

Visiting Life: Women Doing Time on the Outside by Bridget Kinsella.

Kinsella is the west coast representative for Publisher’s Weekly and is a well-respected member of the Bay Area literary community. She was all over the radio and television with this book, which details her platonic romance with a convict at Pelican Bay Penitentiary in northern California.

The beginning of the book starts strongly as Kinsella describes falling in love with her first husband and the sense of betrayal she felt at his departure when he discovered he way gay. The break-up forces her to reevaluate everything, move across the country to California, and cast about for new ways to survive. She sets herself up as a literary agent and someone sends her some writing by Rory Mehan, who is serving a life sentence for murder. Kinsella is so impressed with Mehan's writing that she decides to visit him at Pelican Bay prison, which is about a seven hour drive from the Bay Area. When they meet, she is astounded at his perceptiveness. He is just glad to get a female visitor and within moments is romancing her. They fall in love and the rest of the book is the story of their platonic romance.

I just never felt comfortable with Kinsella’s description of her romance with Rory. Perhaps I was bewildered that she could fall for his pap and overblown phrases. Here was this accomplished woman with a deep neediness that is helped by a man with no education and a violent background. How can she believe him? She didn’t seem to question the relationship deeply enough and although she hints throughout the book that she knows she will one day leave him, that he is just a temporary diversion, she never has to make the difficult, final break because he comes down with a fatal disease. He decides not to seek treatment, so Kinsella gets to avoid a final break.

How to Talk to a Widower by Joe Tropper – I loved Tropper’s last book, The Book of Joe, but found this one much less funny and moving. It’s actually kind of depressing as the protagonist, a young widower, is still mourning his wife throughout the entire book. Tropper introduces several comic situations, such as having the protagonist’s pregnant twin sister leave her husband and move in to provide company, but the juxtaposition of comedy and serious intent didn’t work for me.

Living in a Foreign Language by Michael Tucker. This is a case of a book getting published because its author is a celebrity. Tucker and his wife, Jill Eikenberry, played two lawyers on the hit television show L.A. Law. The story details their lives after they leave the limelight and their attempts to find new meaning away from the glare of stardom. At some point they travel to the Umbrian region of Italy and buy and fix up an old cottage,

The book doesn’t really have any narrative momentum. I picked it up because I had just visited Umbria and wanted to get a deeper perspective on the region. Tucker is best at describing the food he eats and cooks. His writing really comes alive as he talks about visiting the small butchers and grocers near his town or the simple, yet sumptuous, meals, he eats at various restaurants. It’s a good book to read to make your mouth water, but it will leave you feeling vaguely empty.

The Manny by Holly Peterson – Peterson was a protégé of Tina Brown’s and has had a long career in network television. Her father is Pete Peterson, one of the richest men in the world, and it is this part of her background that Peterson uses for The Manny. The book is a glimpse into the lives of the uber-rich of the upper East Side. “Wheels up at 3!” is one of their favorite phrases, meaning their private plane will depart at 3,

In many ways this is typical chick-lit: lovely, unappreciated woman lives with scoundrel, meets a new man, gets together with new man. The difference here is that the new man is the family babysitter, or Manny.

Peterson got $500,000 for this novel and will get an equal amount for her second book. The main reason to read this book is to glimpse inside a world where people appear to be totally out of touch and obsessed with their bodies, their décor, and their clothes.

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