Monday, January 27, 2014

North of Boston

Boston fisherman, U.S. Naval researchers, Inuit natives of the Arctic, environmentalists, and perfume industry executives make up an array of characters diverse enough to provide fodder for at least a few separate books, but in North of Boston, the debut novel by Elisabeth Elo, they're twisted together into a single intriguing storyline.

Elo's heroine is Pirio Kasparov, a first-generation American who is heiress to the perfume empire her Russian parents built. In spite of the more glamorous trappings of her life, Pirio has a decidedly rebellious streak to her nature, seemingly less comfortable in the plush surroundings of her father's Beacon Hill townhouse than she is in a South Boston dive bar with her alcoholic best friend, Thomasina. She's a devoted godmother to Thomasina's son, Noah, and a friend to Noah's father, Ned, who introduces her to the world of Boston's fishing industry. Pirio's adventure begins during a fishing trip with Ned, when a commercial ship strikes their small boat, destroying it and killing Ned. Pirio manages to survive by withstanding hours floating in frigid water, a miraculous feat that garners interest from Navy scientists. While she submits to medical tests to measure her body's unusual capacity to adapt to cold temperatures, Pirio simultaneously begins to investigate the accident, determined to find out who is responsible for the hit-and-run and bring some closure for Noah. Of course, as these things usually go, once Pirio starts to poke her nose where it doesn't belong she realizes that she may be dealing with a larger criminal conspiracy than she ever imagined.

Although I'll be the first to admit that I'm not an expert in crime thrillers, North of Boston feels like it transcends what I often associate with that genre. Elo mixes her fast-paced plot with decidedly Noir elements, from sleazy characters loitering on foggy harbor piers to desolate scenes on the frozen landscape of the Arctic Circle, where Pirio's investigation ultimately leads her. It makes for a sophisticated page turner that's well worth reading and that seems ripe for a moody film adaptation a la Mystic River or Gone Baby Gone.

A copy of this book was provided to me by Penguin. All thoughts and opinions in this post are my own.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Two Family Sagas

Two of my first reads of 2014 share the common theme of being multi-generational family sagas, with characters that leave their families to head west toward new lives.

First was a classic that's been on my To Read list for some time, Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. Although it's a novel that I've long wanted to read, its early-twentieth century American West setting gave me pause since that's typically not my favorite era or region to read about. However, I quickly realized that any preconceptions I had in the shape of Wild West mining towns, cowboys, sheriffs, and saloons would not apply here. Stegner's portrait of the West is filled with hardship and pioneering spirit, but is painted with much more detail and refinement than I was expecting.

Guiding the story is Lyman Ward, an elderly, wheelchair-bound historian who, while living a hermetic life in 1970's California, sets out to reconstruct the life of his grandmother, Susan Burling. An aspiring artist with a strong taste for high society, she's a character who could be easily imagined populating any of Edith Wharton's New York stories. Instead, she finds herself drawn into a marriage to Oliver Ward, an engineer and mining expert who moves his family from job to job in California, Idaho, Mexico, and Colorado. Susan's story unfolds in an interesting way through a combination of Lyman's memories, excerpts from her letters that he reads, and fictional reconstructions that he creates. It's a completely engrossing effect that--somewhat to my surprise--made the novel quite a page turner for me. Combine that with some really beautiful passages of writing, particularly around themes of how one generation relates to the next, and it's easy to see why Angle of Repose is considered a modern classic.

Next was Jhumpa Lahiri's latest novel, The Lowland. Spanning the globe from India to New England to California and back, it's a bit larger in scope than many of her other stories, yet still portrays the lives of immigrants in their adopted homeland in vivid and realistic detail. The story starts with two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, who grow up extremely close despite their vastly different personalities. Both bright, Subhash is more reserved, devoting himself to his family duties and schoolwork, while Udayan is more impulsive, bold, and argumentative. As a young man, Udayan becomes involved with the Naxalite movement, India's left-leaning outgrowth of the Communist party. When Udayan is killed as a result of escalating political violence, Subhash steps in to marry the young, pregnant wife he left behind. Subhash takes his new family to Rhode Island, where he is earning is PhD, and remains there for the rest of his life, raising Udayan's daughter as his own. As the novel progresses, we see the ramifications of that choice on each member of his family and, eventually, learn the true circumstances of Udayan's death.

The early part of the novel got off to a somewhat slow start for me with its myriad of heavy details about Indian politics in the 1960's and 70's, but any fears I had that it might not live up to Lahiri's other works were quickly pushed aside once I became absorbed in the beautiful, complex character portrayals that she does so well. I happened to notice that one of the blurbs on the back cover of the book described her writing as something along the lines of "translucent prose that makes you forget you're reading". Although that sounds like one of those lyrical lines that don't really make sense but sound good in a book review, I couldn't help thinking that I actually found that to be true with this book--just don't ask me to explain what it means!

There's definitely something satisfying about diving into a multi-generational tale. Do you have any favorite literary family sagas to recommend?

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A Glass of Blessings

A Glass of Blessings marks yet another Barbara Pym novel that I completely loved, which will come as no surprise to anyone who's been following along as I've gradually been reading all of her works over the past year.

This time our heroine is Wilmet Forsyth, who is something of a departure from the "excellent women" that Pym often writes about. While those characters are typically middle-aged spinsters, sometimes a bit dowdy in appearance, often overlooked or taken for granted by their circle of friends,Wilmet is a married, well-off woman in her early-thirties who is always stylishly dressed and sure to be included in any local social event. Married to a civil servant who doesn't want her to work, Wilmet fills up her days by allowing herself to be carried along on a wave of neighborhood gossip, afternoon teas, and church activities, although she's half-hearted about these things. Even while she holds herself apart as an observer, offering herself a silent wry commentary about what everyone else is doing, she seems to wish she was able to dive into the center of it all. She soon finds a pleasant distraction, though, when she begins to suspect that she has more than one male admirer on her hands.

I found Wilmet to be such a likable heroine. She's self-centered in a way that's relatable, not selfish, and by the end of the novel she comes to realize that many of the motives she ascribed to her friends and neighbors were actually projections of her own feelings. Yet in her true fashion, Pym ends Wilmet's story by showing that even these kinds of imagined projections can have meaningful real-life ramifications. With its chic, intelligent protagonist and its interesting, diverse cast of supporting characters, A Glass of Blessings brings a slightly more modern feel to the timeless themes that Pym typically covers...and, of course, gets a high recommendation from me.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Grounds for Sculpture

Over the holidays I had a chance to visit Grounds for Sculpture, a sculpture garden located in central New Jersey. Founded in 1984 by a member of the Johnson & Johnson family, it's situated on the former New Jersey State Fair Grounds and features acres of outdoor sculpture installations (including several that put new spins on well-known works of art) and two buildings that house rotating collections of works, like the current exhibit of sculptures by Edwina Sandys, the granddaughter of Winston Churchill.

Arriving shortly before dusk on a winter's day, we had just enough time to look at some of the works, see the holiday light display (which was the only underwhelming part of the visit), and watch the peacocks that wander the grounds fly up into the trees to roost for the night.


It's an incredible place that now ranks among my favorite museum experiences. I'm definitely planning to return for a longer visit during the warmer months.

Monday, January 6, 2014

What I Read On My Christmas Vacation

Fans of the movie A Christmas Story might think the title of this post sounds a little bit like the title of a theme, like the kind that Ralphie writes when he is assigned "What I Want For Christmas" and waxes poetic about his Red Rider BB Gun. I guess that's only fitting since the first book I read over the holiday break was the basis for that film:  In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash by Jean Shepherd, who also wrote the screenplay and narrates the movie. I picked this book up for a dollar at a booksale and had been saving it to read during the holiday season. Nominally a novel, it reads more like a series of essays about growing up in Indiana during the Depression linked only by short interludes in which an adult Ralphie reminisces with one of his childhood friends. The first chapter, which tells the story of Ralphie and the BB gun, is the only one set at Christmas, although later, unrelated chapters contain elements that were incorporated into the movie version, like the infamous leg lamp. All of the stories in the book are told with a nice humorous, nostalgic tone, but some of them did fall kind of flat for me. Knowing that the Shepherd later wrote the script for the movie makes the book feel like a first draft that was subsequently revised and tightened up to bring all of the best parts together into a more cohesive storyline.

Another book I was spurred on to read after seeing the film version was Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick. Although there were again some big differences between the two versions, both worked equally well in telling the story of a man trying to recover from mental illness and win back his ex wife, with different degrees of success, by adopting an optimistic attitude about life. Quick deals with his characters and subject matter in a way that never veers into cliches or stereotypes, which was refreshing and surprising for a feel-good novel that deals with topics that are often portrayed in an over-the-top way.

And finally, I read the literary memoir All Roads Lead to Austen by Amy Elizabeth Smart, a literature professor who spent a year traveling through Latin America conducting book clubs about Jane Austen novels in Spanish to see how her work translated into other cultures. The most interesting parts of this book were the author's descriptions of the different countries she visited and accounts of the cultural mishaps she faced when things were lost in translation. Less interesting were the recaps of the book discussions she led. Each group's discussions rehashed much of the same territory and the points they raised about Austen's work weren't anything new or exciting. Although a bit tepid overall, the book highlights the timeless, cross-cultural appeal of Austen's work, making for a pleasant enough read for fans of Jane.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

New Year, New Books

Happy New Year!

How was your holiday? Santa was very good to me and brought something that's on my perennial wish list--a big stack of new books.

There's a lot I'm looking forward to reading here: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, one of the current releases I've been eager to read; Mary Oliver's collection of poems and essays for dog lovers; another Nancy Mitford novel and Elizabeth Bowen's The House in Paris, widely touted by book bloggers; a bit of nonfiction in Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird and David Sedaris's latest collection; and Giada's Feel Good Food to satisfy the inevitable urge to cook a little healthier after the holidays.

Did you find any books under your tree this year?


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