Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Just Jennifer

Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love by Andrew Shaffer (Harper Perennial, December 2010)

A short, entertaining book Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love briefly outlines the love lives of some of the world’s greatest thinkers, ancient and modern, proving that great thinkers definitely do not make the best loves. From Diogenes to Augustine of Hippo to Abelard, Nietzsche and Ayn Rand, Shaffer discusses the successes, and more often failures, of each philosopher. Many of the love affairs ended in the death of one of the partners, several resulted in illegitimate children and some, in the case of Simone de Beauvier and Jean Paul Satre, lovers for 51 years, the adoption of their younger lovers, in Beauvier’s case, her lesbian lovers. Fact is often stranger than fiction as illustrated in these short vignettes. Each section ends with “in his [her] own words” and provides an appropriate quote. The sections are heavily, and often humorously, footnoted. The entries are arranged alphabetically rather than chronologically adding to the lighthearted feel of the entire affair.

Just Jennifer

A Cup of Friendship by Deborah Rodriguez (Ballantine, January 25, 2011)

Expat Sunny is an American running a coffee shop in Kabul that caterers to other Americans living in Afghanistan. When she finds Yazmina seeking refuge at a local shelter, Sunny takes the young woman under her wing and sets out to learn the secrets that keep Yazmina’s eyes from smiling when the her mouth smiles. As other Western women, including Candace, a wealthy American who is not sure what to do with her new found freedom and all her money, and Isabel, a British journalist who has secrets of her own. Also in Sunny’s life is Halajan, an older, local woman who has lived a traditional life, but who has an independent side to her and also has a long-kept secret that she fears would bring shame to her son who is the security guard for Sunny’s restaurant. As all of these women converge on Sunny’s oasis, amidst the threats, bombing and destruction of Kabul, they turn to each other and inside themselves to find the strength to continue and to make their lives better. Sunny, out of all the characters, is the least developed; she often seems as she is putting up a false, sunny front for those around her. It is when things at the café get their worst that Sunny’s true colors begin to shine and we begin to see what she is truly capable of. A Cup of Friendship will be the jumping off point for many to learn more about modern day Kabul and women’s roles in Afghanistan, both women native to the country, those working in it temporarily and those born elsewhere who are making it their home. Sunny’s coffee shop is welcoming and inviting, the kind of place you will want to tuck into and visit often.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Just Jennifer

Crossing the Heart of Africa: an Odyssey of Love and Adventure by Julian Smith (Harper Perennial, December 2010)

In 1898, British adventurer Ewart Grogan began his quest to navigate the length of Africa from Cape Town to Cairo for the love of a woman. The step-father of Ewart’s beloved Gertrude would not allow them to marry as he considered Ewart an unsuitable husband for his step-daughter. Ewart decided to prove his worthiness by making this cross-continental trip. Over one hundred years later, travel writer Julian Smith is about to marry Laura, who he knows is the best woman for him, but he has doubts about himself and the concept of forever. Neatly weaving the narrative of his modern day (or as modern as possible through the jungles of Africa) with Grogan’s larger than life adventure, Julian Smith explores the wilderness, people and politics of Africa and its small, ever-changing nations at the dawn of the 20th century and just past the turn of the 21st century. These two stories are engaging enough on their own, but Smith adds an even more personal touch as he recounts, often in great detail, the life of his relationship with his soon to be wife. He writes of this journey with uncanny honesty, taking responsibility for his missteps and candidly expressing his self doubt. Crossing the Heart of Africa will appeal to the adventurer and romantic in all of us.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Just Jennifer

Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal by Conor Grennan (Greenwillow, January 2011)

After college, Conor Grennan got a job grew bored of and decided to ditch everything for an around the world adventure. Lest his odyssey make him seem too self absorbed and frivolous, Conor’s first leg of his journey is a three-month volunteer stint at an orphanage in Nepal---surely the Civil War the brochure cautions about can’t be all that bad. Conor quickly learns that conditions are much worse in Nepal than he imagined: there is abject poverty throughout the country; many people live in regions of the country that are for the most part unreachable; the Maoist rebels control much of the country and have many people living in fear for their lives and what little freedoms they have. What greets Conor at the orphanage is the innocence and hope that only young children can offer. He learns that most of the children are not orphaned but have been rescued from traffickers. Conor plans on putting in his three months at the orphanage and moving on, but the children affect him in ways that surprise him. After he completes his originally planned trip, he finds himself returning to Nepal, finding more children that need his help. He sets up a non-profit organization, Next Generation Nepal that not only provides the funding to help reunite children with their families, but runs a home in Nepal for these displaced children. As Conor risks his safety as he treks into the most remote regions of the country to find these children’s families, he learns a great deal about himself, but he also learns that many of these parents truly believed that these children would have a better life when they paid the trafficker to take them, and that they may not be able to care for them and offer them what Conor’s orphanage, and others like it, can offer the children Conor’s grace and humor and willingness to admit his shortcomings offer brief respites to the otherwise grave conditions described in this book. This book will be an eye-opening experience to readers who are unfamiliar with Nepal or know it only as the country where Mount Everest can be found or as a spiritual retreat. Readers will be touched by the children and the way they changed Conor’s life as much as he has changed theirs. Fans of Three Cups of Tea will want to put this at the top of their New Year’s “to be read” list.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Just Jennifer

The Lake of Dreams by Kim Edwards (Viking, January 4, 2011)

Lucy, at a pivotal moment in her young life returns to her home town in upstate New York when her mother fractures her wrist in a car accident. Leaving The Lake of Dreams shortly after her father’s death ten years earlier, Lucy has a lot of loose ends and ghosts awaiting her return and quickly sees that life has continued in her absence, leaving her many things to grapple with. Lucy must face the unresolved relationships she left: with her mother, her brother Blake and Keegan Falls, the one that might have been, but now never can be. Lucy has not put down roots in the past ten years, though she has been living in Japan with Yoshi whom she met while doing humanitarian work in Jakarta. In spite of her wanderlust and unwillingness to face past ghosts, Lucy begins a quest to learn about her family’s past when she finds a cache of letters and suffragette documents in an old window seat along with a small blanket with a very unusual border. This motif is also found in stained glass windows in a local chapel that may be torn down if the local wetlands are developed and not preserved. Lucy searches for clues to her family using the stained glass windows and their creator, certain her long-lost great aunt was involved with the artist. There is a lot going on in this book, a mysterious ancestors, a grieving family, lost loves and land preservation (even that has two sides, the Native Americans who claim it and the environmentalists who want to save the local flora and fauna) but Kim Edwards ties all the sub-plots together neatly, if a little too sweetly at times. Fans of The Memory Keeper’s Daughter have been waiting a long time for Edwards’s next book and most will not be disappointed.

Another novel, completely different in its tone, released this month also has stained glass and women’s rights at the turn of the twentieth century at its forefront.

Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland (Random House, January 11, 2011) takes us to the Gilded Age and explores the life of Clara Driscoll who worked for Louis Comfort Tiffany in his factory and is said to have come up with the idea for the now ubiquitous Tiffany lamp shade that is so familiar. Carefully researched, this book not only explores the lives of working women at the dawn of the new century, but also discusses other social issues, such as the living and working conditions of the poorest of the poor. Larger than life characters and descriptions of neighborhoods of Manhattan from the Upper West Side to the Fifth Avenue Mansions to the early Bohemians add to a rich atmosphere. Clara is fully realized as she deals with being a widow and learns to fit into a man’s world, leading her life as she wishes and a life that will make her happy and fulfilled.

Just Jennifer

666 Park Avenue by Gabriella Pierce (Avon, February 2011)

Jane Boyle is leading quiet but satisfactory life in Paris until Malcolm Doran, New York’s most eligible bachelor, sweeps her off of her feet and carries her back to New York as his fiancé where she meets her future mother-in-law who she learns is an honest-to-goodness witch, and not the good kind. The more Jane learns about her fiancé and his family, and her own past, the more she realizes the dangerous course she has set herself on. Without putting her New York friends in more danger than necessary she slowly puts the pieces together and soon doesn’t realize who she can trust; before she knows it, it’s too late and she is Mrs. Malcolm Doran and in a lot of danger. A fun mix of romance, the supernatural and Manhattan socialites, this is ripe for a sequel.

Just Jennifer

Hating Olivia by Mark SaFranko (Harper Perennial, 2010)

Max Zajack’s life as a struggling writer and musician is pretty much a disaster; he lives in cheap, roach-infested rooms & he can’t ever keep his dead end jobs long enough to make ends meet, but when he meets Olivia at a club one night, he thinks his life is taking a change for the better, when in reality, Max’s life begins a downward slide, about to spiral completely out of control. Max is completely obsessed with Olivia, and she with him. Olivia becomes domineering, controlling and emotionally manipulative leaving Max no way out. There is frequent, rough sex, volatile arguments, threats of leaving and then rough sex again, to prove, each to the other, that they can’t live without the other. As these two lost souls navigate life together, there is violence and unhappiness, but there is also a strange kind of love that you feel you will die without, if you don’t die in the living it. Not angry in its telling, Max relates an intense and visceral tale, exploring a love so obsessed it is ultimately destructive. The writing is edgy, the language raw, though there are carefully constructed, gentle sentences “…late summer passed like a lilac-scented dream…autumn had tossed its longer nights over the world like a soft blanket…” remind you that this is a love story after all.