Saturday, July 19, 2008

Good Summer Reads

Well, my five weeks in London are over. I leave tomorrow for San Francisco. I can’t believe how fast the time has gone, how much I have seen, and how little I have blogged.

But I did get a lot of reading done! And I read a lot of good books:

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. I picked up an advance copy of this novel at BEA and got the chance to meet Curtis at a Random House party. She was very personable and was dressed casually – definitely not aiming for the high glamour, high gloss authoress look.

I liked Prep. I didn’t love it. I really really enjoyed An American Wife and highly recommend it. The book is based on Laura Bush, but it transcends her particular life. It is the story of an intelligent Midwestern teenager named Alice Blackwell whose life is transformed when she causes a car accident. (This happened to Bush) Alice turns from a girl who feels she has a wide-open future to one who must clamp down her feelings and desires because she doesn’t want to stick out. When she is close to 30, she meets a charismatic, blue-blooded Republican named Charlie whose politics and attitudes toward race and poverty clash strongly with hers. Yet she is drawn to his enthusiasm, his charisma, and his sexual nature. They marry, but when he is elected President, she finds she disagrees with many of his policies.

This book made empathize with Laura Bush and provided an explanation for why someone could fall in love with a man like George Bush, whom I consider a boor. It is a reminded that all of us, even the most evil men like Hitler or Stalin, have good attributes. The book shows that the good and bad can easily coexist and are not necessarily incompatible. I guess people could argue that a book that humanizes George Bush is not necessarily a good thing as we are coming up on an important election. I don’t feel this way. I read this book non-stop – at least the first two-thirds. It slowed down for me a bit after this, but I still recommend it highly.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Cindy Snow, who works at A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland, really liked this book so when I went to BEA I picked up a galley. The publisher has high hopes for this novel, for it has sent out 7,500 galleys to build buzz.

The book is told as a series of letters between a London writer and the residents of Guernsey, an island between Britain and France. The time is 1946, at the end of World War II, when Brits are still feeling the pinch of the war. London has been bombed to bits and there is little food or fun.

Writer Juliet Ashton has just published a book based on a humorous column she wrote during the war. She is casting about for her next book topic when she gets a letter from a man on Guernsey. He had purchased a used book that had her name in it.

The book is told as a series of letters between Juliet and the inhabitants of Guernsey. The island had been occupied by the Nazis during the war, and one night some of the residents met clandestinely to share a roasted pig. Their feasting was illegal. At the end of the evening, some of them were questioned by the Germans and they claimed they had been conducting a regular meeting of their book group, which they called The Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Society.

Initially, I was put off by the folksy tone of the letters. I thought they were hokey. But the writing grew on me and I became as fond of the folks on Guernsey as the protagonist did.

The author of the book Mary Anne Shaffer, sold it to Random House but then became ill. She brought in her niece, the children’s author Annie Burrows, to help refine the manuscript. Sadly, Shaffer, who lived in the Bay Area, has died, and won’t get to see the success of her book. The Wall Street Journal wrote about her death and the book's unexpected success.

City of Thieves by David Benioff. Benioff, the author of The 25th Hour and the screenwriter for Troy, has written a novel ostensibly based on the story of his grandfather, who survived the siege of Leningrad during World War II. There’s been a lot of talk about whether this story is true or not, but who cares. Benioff spins a wonderful tale about Lev, whose father, a poet, was disappeared by Stalin, and whose mother and sister have fled east to escape the approaching Germans. Lev refused to leave, for at 17 he has the sense that he must prove himself to be a man. Through a series of events, Lev gets arrested for looting and is offered a reprieve from execution if he can find a dozen eggs for a colonel who wants them for his daughter’s wedding cake. He meets an Aryan-looking Army deserter in prison, and the two trudge out in the cold of the winter on an impossible search. Of course, along the way, Lev discovers who he truly is and learns the meaning of friendship. The book is a good, quick read, if slightly sentimental, but I liked it.

Here are my other reads. I would rate them as fair:

American Lightening: Terror Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century by Howard Blum.

When I picked up this galley at Book Expo America, I swore under my breath. It’s the story of the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times Building by the McNamara Brothers. It's a great story full of drama and pathos and I had been thinking of writing something on this topic.

While the book has some gripping scenes and is based around the famed detective William Burns’ search for the bombers, it doesn’t really work. Blum has done a lot of research and has some good characters, but he is so intent on writing a narrative non-fiction work that he leaves out a lot of history and context. Consequently, the book feels false and the reader is left with big questions about the political climate in Los Angeles at the turn of the century. And the connection with the beginnings of the movie business is really tenuous.

The Diana Chronicles by Tina Brown. Suffice to say it took me 8 weeks to finish this book. I learned a little about the British monarchy, which is why I bought it, but not enough to justify 500+ pages.

The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly – Enjoyable, but not nearly as good as the Lincoln Lawyer.

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