Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Just Jennifer

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain (Ballantine, March 2011)

Ernest Hemingway lived a colorful, if angst ridden life; his early years are chronicled in this new novel, beginning in 1920 Chicago and tracing Hemingway’s rise to published author, following Hemingway and his first wife to Paris where they involve themselves with the artsy American ex-patriots, including Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, the Fitzgeralds and the Murphy’s, all living in Paris. Ernest meets his first wife Hadley when she is twenty-nine and he is twenty –one. After an intense, whirlwind courtship, the two marry and move to Europe with Paris as their base, traveling the continent while Ernest writes and begins his transformation into the great American novelist Papa Hemingway.

This book evokes the literary scene in Paris between the wars so realistically it is as if you have stopped for tea or scotch with one of the great writers of the time. Not only is the setting marvelous, but the transformation of Hadley of Hadley from an unsure homebody to the wife of a well-known figure, to a strong, independent woman who knows her own mind. McLain’s writing is so intimate that you will become immersed in Hadley and Ernest’s world and find the time passing much too quickly.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Just Jennifer

Girls to the Front: the True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus (Harper Perennial, October 2010)

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, a group of girls, mostly based in Olympia, Washington (centered around Evergreen State College) and Washington, D.C. began looking for a safe place where they could talk about anything they wanted, including topics such as abuse, incest and rape. Many just wanted a place to validate their feelings that they were as good as boys and to express their frustration. Starting as a series of alternative girl bands, rising out of the punk movement, these girls, and young women, began to find each other, write zines, play music and shout out in an attempt to be heard. Sara Marcus, in high school at the time, was such a girl looking for a place to explore her feelings and get reassurance she wasn’t alone. Three major girl groups grew out of this movement, Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy. Traveling the country, these groups gave girls an outlet to express themselves and gave a voice to the then called Riot Grrrl movement. By the mid-1990’s, the movement had mostly died out; it never caught on in most major cities including New York City and Chicago, and without the mass communication afforded by the internet, the girls had to rely on word of mouth and traditional means of communication to spread their message. The history of this movement is thoroughly documented with a large notes section and an appendix updating the status of the major players mentioned throughout. This is an interesting, little know, part of feminist history, and example of how a small group, girls and young women in this case, can spread their message and make themselves heard.

Just Jennifer

Running the Books by Avi Steinberg (Random House, October 2010)

You’ve got to love a book that begins “Pimps make the best librarians.” and I did. After Avi Steinberg gave up the Yeshiva for Harvard his main goal was finding a job with medical benefits. Writing obituaries was fun for awhile, but the pay was lousy as were the benefits, so when Avi saw an ad for a second shift prison librarian at a prison library he figured this was something he could do. He is hired despite his lack of library degree and given very little introduction before he found himself in charge of the afternoon/evening shift at the prison library, including several inmate employees and a women’s inmate writing group. As Avi spends his days learning his job, learning about the prison culture and learning each inmate’s story. He finds himself thinking about his life, his drifting away from his Orthodox upbringing, and his relationship with girlfriend Kayla as he spends time with men and women who have nothing but time. He marvels at their resourcefulness and their often upbeat take on their situations, always hoping for something that will help improve things for them or help them find a way to secure their freedom. With wry, insightful observations, Avi learns how to play the game, but then wonders if he really wants to.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Just Jennifer

 The Night Season by Chelsea Cain (Minotaur, March 2011)

Gretchen Lowell is locked safely away in maximum security, but is Detective Archie Sheridan safe? Archie has been slowly recovering, mind and body, from his intense relationship with serial killer Gretchen Lowell is has almost killed him on more than one occasion, but who has drawn him into a web of a love-hate relationship that Archie almost did not escape.  It has been raining in Portland and flooding has begun, the worst flooding since Vanport, a city just north of Portland was wiped out in a 1948 flood.  The flood has turned up a few dead bodies, one of which that is the suspected remains of a 1948 flood victim.  The others are labeled accidental deaths until a small mark is noticed on the palm of each victim and a small key is found on their person.  Now with the help of wise-cracking but smart reporter Susan Ward, Archie finds himself searching the now flooded city for a serial killer who may have a little boy he kidnapped two years ago with him, and a very deadly poison.  When the poisonings turn personal, Archie steps up his investigation, fighting his past demons to save those closest to him, those who stood by him when he was in trouble. 

The Night Season is not as graphic and gory as Chelsea Cain’s previous mysteries, but the mystery is better than ever.  The atmosphere of fear an uncertainty as the Willamette River rises is palpable, and the characters continue to be more developed, especially Susan who takes a starring role in this one.  A cameo by Gretchen reminds everyone that Archie has far from won the battle with her, even as he is winning it with himself.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Just Jennifer

 The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown (Amy Einhorn, January 2011)

Any novel whose motto is “There is no problem a library card can’t solve” has the potential to be a favorite among die-hard readers, but The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown exceeds all expectations.  The Andreas sisters, named by their father, a Shakespearean professor, after three of Shakespeare’s heroines, Rosalind, Bianca (Bean) and Cordelia grew up in an eccentric household full of books and a father who had a Shakespeare quote appropriate for any occasion.  The three young women left their home to find their own way in the world, but as each finds things not to be as they expected and hoped to be, they make their way back home, under the guise of taking care of their ailing mother, to lick their wounds and regroup. 

Rosie, the oldest, a professor at the college in the town where she lived and where her father taught, has taken on the role as primary guardian for the girls’ parents.  Now she is faced with a decision as her fiancĂ© has an opportunity to spend several years at Oxford and wants Rosie to join him.  Rosie is certain that her parents’ lives, and now Bean and Cordy, will fall to pieces if she leaves.  Bean has returned to her Ohio hometown after getting caught up in the glitz and glamour of New York City, and getting caught embezzling from the law firm where she worked.  Cordy has returned home after traveling carefree around the United States with a less than carefree situation.  Now the girls must confront their fears about aging parents, their own fears and self doubts that are holding them back and try to repair their relationships with each other and see each other as individual adults rather than the bossy older sister or the pesty younger sister.

Cleverly and very effectively told in the first person plural, The Weird Sisters is a book you will want to share with everyone, especially your own weird sister.  This point of view allows a very full view of each character and her individual concerns, fears and shortcomings.  Rose, Bean and Cordy are wonderful characters that you will want to help work through their problems and even shake some sense into at times.  Eleanor Brown’s settings, especially those in the Andreas house, are so inviting, you will want to flop down on the couch and pick up the nearest book and start reading where the previous reader left off.  Even the novice Shakespeare fan will love the way the family can casually toss out the Bard’s quotations, even the more obscure, at the appropriate time.  This is one of those rare books that you never want to see end. 

Friday, November 5, 2010

Just Jennifer

Word Made Flesh Literary Tattoos from Bookworms Worldwide
by Eva Talmadge & Justin Taylor

Many bookworms have favorite quotes from works of literature or favorite authors that they love to shout about, some so much that they have decided to have these selections tattooed on their body. The choices people have made are fascinating and the execution often intriguing: some have chosen to have entire passages on their body, one person is a visual tribute to Cervantes, and one project Skin : A Mortal Work of Art created by Shelley Jackson is a word per person, creating an entire work when put together, published no where else.

The photographs are clear and well-done, the captions of the people and their tattoos, some a sentence or two, others several pages, descriptive and thought-provoking in their simplicity. If these pictures, captions and short essays don’t inspire you to get your favorite quote or illustration permanently inked on your person, they will certainly inspire you seek out the source of the tattoo and discover something new or revisit an old favorite in a new light.

Just Jennifer

Man in the Woods by Scott Spencer

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

Two men: one suspected of a crime he never committed, one hiding from a crime he never meant to commit. Each wrestling with his realty, each looking over his shoulder, one for the past that haunts him, one for his present that he is afraid will catch up with him, neither being able to look toward the future.

In Man in the Woods, Scott Spencer introduces Paul, a master carpenter with simple basic needs who has lived much of his life on the outskirts of society without the traditional support mechanisms of a family and close friends. He wanders into a relationship with Kate, herself very damaged, a current media darling who has just authored a popular guide to praying; together the two are forging a life that suits themselves and Kate’s young daughter, without facing who they are and what they have done. Paul’s brief respite in a sate part on his way back to Kate sets off a chain of events that Kate tries mightily to stop from unraveling everything she has done, but whose consequences Paul knows deep down inside he must eventually face.

Scott Spencer writes a page turning novel that explores its characters, Kate reacting to her new success in life, trying to forget about, rather than heal from, her previous life, and Paul as the man before he enters the woods, while he is in the woods and the man he is when he leaves the woods and how these changes affect those around him.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a suspenseful literary novel with a richly described rural Mississippi setting, including the values and mores of the early 1970’s and today. He has developed Silas and Larry so well that it will almost be like looking into a mirror. The plot is engrossing, the truth hidden as well as some of the back roads of Larry and Silas’s Mississippi.

Larry Ott was suspected of raping a murdering a girl when he was in high school, a girl whose body has never been found, nor has any evidence of a crime been found. Larry lives in the rural Mississippi that remains suspicious of him to his day and quickly looks to him when another young girl goes missing. Larry was an awkward young boy who struck up an unlikely friendship with Silas, a black boy being raised by a single mother, a relationship Larry’s parents have forbidden him to pursue, but that he conducts in secret. After the first girl disappeared, Silas and his mother left town, Silas returning many years later as a constable, the one who can save Larry and help him break out of his past, or the one who can hold past grudges and allow Larry to continue living his isolated life. Larry and Silas’s friendship ended abruptly and neither has ever had a chance to confront the other with his suspicions or reassurances. Now men, they will be forced to confront each other, and their individual pasts, fears, prejudices and friendship head on, uncovering secrets that they have kept separately and together for so many years that will either heal their relationship or drive them apart forever.