Wednesday, July 29, 2009
A teenager in trouble will often find it easier to lie when confronted with a bad situation. When Terrell Matheus accidentally shoots and kills his older brother Lawrence, his instinct is to lie. He tells his parents and the police that a truck with white boys accosted Lawrence on the front porch of their home and shot and killed him.
So begins The Lie, the powerful debut novel by O.H. Bennett. The African- American Matheus family moved from the projects to a nice home in a middle class neighborhood in Evansville, Indiana. Mom and Dad both work full-time jobs, the boys go to a good high school.
The story is set in the 1970's, but if I didn't read that in the book summary, I might not have known that. The situation is one that could be seen on the nightly news today, and there isn't much in the story that struck me as 1970s. The clothes, the language- it all seemed contemporary.
Terrell sticks to his story, somehow thinking that it will be less painful for his parents than the truth. Students at the high school lionize Lawrence, making him into a martyr. Tensions between blacks and whites rise in the community.
When Terrell's uncle believes he has found the men who killed his nephew, and the police find the evidence doesn't fit Terrell's version, his story unravels. Terrell's parents, destroyed by their older son's death, come undone when the truth of how he died is finally known.
The scene where Terrell is forced to confront his lie will leave the reader stricken. As a parent of two college aged sons, I related to the worst pain a mother can feel- one son causes the death of the other. Bennett writes with such power and emotion, it literally took my breath away.
Terrell's road to redemption is a long, difficult one. He has no friends, and his parents can't have him at home; he is a pariah. He forms a bond with his brother's girlfriend, a young woman with many problems of her own. Their fragile relationship is the one hopeful thing in his life.
Bennett captures the family dynamic; this is a family that could live down the street. The way in which the parents deal with the pain of their loss of both sons hit home for me. The relationship between the brothers- close when they are young, changing as they became teens, reflects the reality of many families.
The Lie will break your heart, and though it is not aimed at high school students, it would be a great book for them (especially young men) to read. It reminded me of George Pelecanos's The Turnaround, another powerful novel about race relations and how one lie can damage the lives of many people for years to come.
Rating 4 of 5 stars
Monday, July 27, 2009
Jennifer Weiner hits all the right notes in her latest New York Times #1 best selling novel, Best Friends Forever. Anyone who has ever had a best friend will relate to the story of Addie Downs and Val Adler, who became fast friends the day that nine-year-old Val moved in across the street from Addie.
The book opens with Val at their fifteen year high school reunion. She has an altercation with a man from high school who hurt her and tormented Addie in their senior year. Val fears that she has accidentally killed the man, and runs to Addie, whom she hasn't seen in fifteen years, for help.
Addie decides to help Val find out if the man is dead, and the (mis)adventure is on. Weiner has stated that the thought "what would happen if Thelma and Louis survived?" started her on the path to this novel, and their comical journey provides much humor for the novel.
However, it is the poignancy of the story that most appealed to me. We meet Addie and Val as girls, and follow their friendship through high school. Addie came from a loving family. Dad served in Vietnam, and suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome. He loved his wife, a greeting card writer and terrific cook, who suffered from obesity. Older brother Jon was a popular jock who became increasingly embarrassed by his family. Val lived with her mom, who seemed incapable of caring for her daughter.
Addie and Val drifted apart in high school, after an incident in their senior year ended their friendship. Addie looked forward to a new start away at college, but family tragedies put an end to that. She came home, took care of family business and never left again. She became an obese loner, rarely leaving her home.
Weiner creates empathy for Addie and Val. She drives home the point that people tend to think everyone else's life is easier that his or her own, and that people are generally surprised to discover that other people envy them. High school can be a difficult time for most people, and Weiner expertly brings that time back to the reader.
Addie Downs quickly became a favorite literary character of mine. While most people don't have her particular story, I related to her life. I felt like I knew Addie, her story was so authentic. Best Friends Forever will appeal to anyone who survived high school, and it may encourage you to reconnect with an old friend. Just hope that she doesn't turn up late at night on your doorstep in a bloody coat!
Rating 4 of 5 stars
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Author Kate Jacobs , who wrote the successful The Friday Night Knitting Club , moves to the culinary world in her new novel, Comfort Food. If you enjoy spending the evening watching Food TV, this novel is for you.
Augusta "Gus" has been hosting a successful TV show on the CookingChannel for years. She was widowed several years ago and left alone to raise her two young daughters Aimee, a global economic analyst, and Sabrina, an up-and-coming decorator. Gus is about to turn fifty years old when she receives news from her boss- the format of her show is going to be changed and she is getting a sexy young co-host, Carmen, a former Miss Spain.
Carmen appears to be a manipulative woman, gunning for Gus's job. Somehow, Gus's daughters, Sabrina's ex-fiance Troy, Gus's reclusive neighbor Hannah, and new chef Oliver all end up on the TV show, making for a crowded kitchen, with insults being tossed around the kitchen, along with the ingredients.
Gus has been told that if this doesn't work, she will be out of a job. So as she has always done, she rolls up her sleeves and is determined to make it work.
Jacobs writes interesting characters, and the family dynamic amongst Gus and her daughters is very real. They never dealt openly with the loss of their father and husband, never spoke about it. Eventually all of the repressed feelings come to light and must be dealt with. Many families handle situations like that in the same manner, and readers will identify with this. A passage that I found thought provoking was this:
"You don't know what it's like to struggle." Gus was getting angry; her cheeks were turning red. "I have done everything for you two."
"Maybe don't do so much, then," Aimee said quietly. "We may not have had your struggle, but we've had our own."
That sounds like a conversation many families could have.
All of the characters have strengths and weaknesses, they are three dimensional, and for the most part likable, just as most people are. Everyone is just trying to do their best to get what they want out of life. Gus meddles in her daughter's love life, Hannah is reclusive for a good reason, Troy wants to win Sabrina back, and Oliver has his eyes on romance; Jacobs manages to keep all of these plates spinning while the story unfolds.
Many people watch Food TV for the personalities as well as the food, and if you are one of them, you'll find Comfort Food a tasty treat. You get a bit of a backstage look at how those shows work, and for good measure, Jacobs gives the reader a few recipes mentioned in the story at the end of the book.
Rating 3.5 of 5 stars
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
I was lucky enough to get to see the cast of the Broadway musical 9 to 5 at Barnes & Noble Lincoln Triangle NYC yesterday for a CD signing and performance. (My blog post on that here: http://bookchickdi.blogspot.com/2009/04/9-to-5-will-make-you-smile-for-two.html)
The events room was packed to capacity as Marc Kudish took to the stage as the MC. This guy is so funny and he relishes the role of Franklin Hart Jr. I don't think I've ever seen anyone who seemed to enjoy playing a role as much as he does! His performance of "Here For You", where he pours out his feelings of lust for Doralee, included his choreography from the show, with a few added touches. A comic masterpiece from a man who can sing.
Megan Hilty (Doralee) sang "Backwoods Barbie" which she explained wasn't supposed to be in the show because it sounded too 'Dolly'. The three ladies, Hilty, Stephanie J. Block (Judy Bernly) and Allison Janney (Violet Newstead) gave me chills as they harmonized on "I Just Might", a song that combined three songs into one to cut time from the show. If you closed your eyes, you would have sworn you were listening to a fully mixed recording.
The cast happily signed copies of the yet-to-be-released CD soundtrack, so everyone there got a special treat. If you haven't seen 9 to 5 The Musical, plan a trip to NYC to do so. I was sorry that composer/lyricist Dolly Parton couldn't be there as well. Her songs are wonderful in this, her first Broadway show.
I'd also like to compliment the staff at Barnes & Noble Lincoln Triangle; they did a fabulous job keeping everything organized and all of the customers informed of what was going on.
I had the pleasure of seeing the delightful Jennifer Weiner last night at Barnes and Noble Lincoln Triangle NYC promoting her newest book Best Friends Forever. She had packed the room with excited women, all eager to ask her questions about her books.
Jennifer seems like your best friend, and she started her talk with some naughty words that had the mostly women in the room howling with laughter. Then she proceeded to dish on things her best friend, editor, sister and sister-in-law had told her. When her sister-in-law told her that she had been married once before for a brief time, Jennifer and her sisters pressed the woman to tell them why the marriage ended. Reluctantly she told them, and Jennifer's recounting of the story was hilarious. (It had to do with soccer- sort of!) My advice to anyone who is related to, works with, or is friends with Jennifer, is be careful what you tell her. It will repeated or used in one of her books, reflected through her prism of humor.
Listening to Jennifer was just like sitting with your best friend, and there was a feeling of being at a lunch with all of your friends last night. Everyone was happy and chatting with the person sitting next to them who, although a stranger a few moments ago, now feels like a friend you have had forever. I've never quite had that experience before at a book signing.
She reminded me of Adriana Trigiani the way in which she spoke so openly with people and made them feel like her friends. She saw one woman in the audience and asked if she was Lauren- she recognized her from her Facebook picture on Jennifer's fan page and gave her a copy of her book because Lauren won the book but hadn't received it yet. She also seemed to remember other fans which whom she had made a previous connection. This is a an author who cherishes her fans and her friends.
I was able to read about 100 pages of Best Friends Forever while I waited, and it is terrific. It's full of humor, pathos and characters you will want to be friends with. I'll post a full review soon.
Thursday, July 9, 2009
I got to see the fabulous Angela Lansbury on Broadway last night in Blithe Spirit, a revival of a Noel Coward play. At 80+ years of age, she has the energy and vitality of a woman half her age. Critics agreed as she was awarded the Tony award for this role last month.
The dashing Rupert Everett is right at home on stage playing Charles, an author who invites a medium, Madame Arcati (Lansbury) to hold a seance at his home. He hopes to study her as research for a new book.
Lansbury goes into a trance, complete with a silly dance that had the audience in stitches. She conjers up the dead wife of Charles in the form of the luminous Christine Ebersole. She plays the role of Elvira as a cross between Carole Lombard and Judy Holliday, even down to the platinum wig. You can't help but giggle when she throws her little tantrums and stamps her feet.
Since only Charles can see Elvira, this is a problem. Charles current wife, Ruth, portrayed magnificently by Jayne Atkinson, thinks that her husband may be losing his mind. The repartee between Everett and Atkinson is priceless, and although Atkinson gets fourth billing in the show, for my money she gave the best performance of the four.
Noel Coward's dialogue requires actors to be on their toes, and all of the actors are more than up to the task. It was like watching ping pong players the way they quickly bounced their witty lines off each other.
The conflict between Elvira and Ruth, with Charles stuck in the middle, provides big laughs, and Lansbury is so expressive and so in-the-moment in each of her scenes, you could see her reactions all the way in the back of the theater.
One thing I have noticed in many plays (particularly in revivals), the role of the maid/butler is a richly humorous one. Christine Baranski in Boeing Boeing, Charles Kimbrough inAccent on Youth and now Susan Louise O'Connor as Edith, the maid with nervous energy in Blithe Spirit. The audience loved her performance.
Blithe Spirit closes July 19th, but if you have an opportunity, you should see it for the lead actors' performances. (I loved the costumes too, especially Ruth's.) It will give you a good belly laugh, and my only complaint is that is went on too long; a cut of ten minutes in the last act would have been prudent.
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Thursday, July 2, 2009
One of the best things about reading a good book is that it can transport you to a time and place that you could not visit any other way. Lisa See's new novel, Shanghai Girls immerses the reader in 1930's Shanghai and Los Angeles.
I am more familiar with the immigrant stories from Europe, having read two interesting Irish immigrant novels recently, Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, and Mary Beth Keane's The Walking People, which also dealt with two sisters who had a secret. I was not so familiar with immigrants from China, which made for an enlightening experience.
We meet two sisters, Pearl and May, who are the only children born to a well-to-do businessman and his wife. The young women live a good life, buying beautiful clothes, going out every evening, working as models for a man who paints calendars. They can almost ignore the poverty surrounding them in Shanghai.
When their father loses all his money gambling, he sells his daughters into arranged marriages with two Chinese brothers who live in Los Angeles. The sisters are horrified and plot to escape from their father.
When Japan invades China, the girls and their mother must flee inland to avoid the war raging around them. The characterization of the mother, who at first appears to be the stereotypical subservient Asian wife, right down to her bound feet, is a revelation. It is their mother who shows inner and outer strength, willing to sacrifice herself to save her daughters.
The sisters end up at Angel Island, an immigration station in San Francisco akin to Ellis Island in New Jersey. Their time there mirrors the experiences I have read about at Ellis Island. I had never heard about Angel Island before this.
Their journey takes them from Shanghai to Los Angeles, and it is riveting. See has set her novel in a momentous time in Chinese/American history. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had repercussions for all Asian immigrants, as many Americans were unable to differentiate Chinese, who also disliked the Japanese after they invaded China, from Japanese. When China became Communist, Americans were undergoing the Red Scare, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy. People feared Communists, and that fear and hatred was transferred to Chinese immigrants.
As the immigrants worked to build a life in this country, they faced racial discrimination. Since these immigrants looked different than European immigrants, it was easier for people to identify them as immigrants. Their customs were different from European immigrants, whose ancestors settled America hundreds of years ago, and this separated them from many Americans.
Along with the history lesson, See has written a beautiful story about sisters, love, loyalty, sacrifice and family. Pearl and May are fascinating characters, and their sisterly relationship is one that many can identify with. The family that they both marry into is also interesting, and the relationship that develops between Pearl and her husband is tender.
Shanghai Girls is a beautifully crafted story that will keep the reader turning the pages. The fact that the reader learns much about the history of Chinese immigrants at this time period is a bonus.
Rating 4.5 of 5 stars
From the book jacket:
UNBUCKLE YOUR BELT AND PULL UP A CHAIR. IT'S THE SPICIEST, SAUCIEST, MOST RIB-STICKING PLUM YET.
Recipe for disaster:
Celebrity chef Stanley Chipotle comes to Trenton to participate in a barbecue cook-off and loses his head --literally.
Throw in some spice:
Bail bonds office worker Lula is witness to the crime, and the only one she’ll talk to is Trenton cop, Joe Morelli.
Pump up the heat:
Chipotle’s sponsor is offering a million dollar reward to anyone who can provide information leading to the capture of the killers.
Stir the pot:
Lula recruits bounty hunter Stephanie Plum to help her find the killers and collect the moolah.
Add a secret ingredient:
Stephanie Plum’s Grandma Mazur. Enough said.
Bring to a boil:
Stephanie Plum is working overtime tracking felons for the bonds office at night and snooping for security expert Carlos Manoso, A.K.A. Ranger, during the day. Can Stephanie hunt down two killers, a traitor, five skips, keep her grandmother out of the sauce, solve Ranger’s problems and not jump his bones?
Habanero hot. So good you’ll want seconds.
Another June has rolled around, and that means another New Jersey bounter hunter Stephanie Plum adventure from author Janet Evanovich. Finger Lickin' Fifteen is one of the more humorous entries in the series.
This book focuses on my favorite characters- Lula, the larger-than-life (in every way) hooker-turned-office assistant, Grandma Mazur, and Stephanie's protector and sometime employer, sexy Ranger.
The crime/mystery storylines (Lula is being chased by bad guys after she witnesses the decapitation of a famous TV chef and someone breaking into the homes of Ranger's security clients) are not really the focus here; this is a more comedic novel than some of the other Stephanie Plum novels, and I enjoyed it.
A funny subplot concerns a young man who flashes the unsuspecting women in Stephanie's parents neighborhood. Grandma tries to explain to Stephanie why the women aren't upset with the flasher:
"Well, technically none of us was unsuspecting," Grandma said. "We wait for him to show up. I guess it's one of them generation things. You get to an age and you look forward to seeing a winkie at four in the afternoon when you're peeling potatoes for supper. The thing about Junior and his winkie is, you don't have to do anything about it. You just take a look and he moves on."
Readers of the series will be happy to know that Stephanie ends up with cars on fire, her apartment on fire, paint poured over her head, falling down the stairs, sleeping in Ranger's bed-all of the usual Stephanie Plum mishaps.
This is a quick, funny, take-it-to-the-beach kind of book. It made me chuckle more than a few times, especially when Lulu and Grandma team up. They are the Jersey girl version of Abbott and Costello.
If you are looking for a clever mystery to be solved, you may be disappointed. And if you are offended by flatulence jokes or cursing, you may want to skip this. But if you think of Stephanie and the gang as friends you love to visit, and you want a good laugh, pick up Finger Lickin' Fifteen. It's fast food reading: maybe not so good for you everyday, but every once in a while, you just have a craving for it.
Rating 4 of 5 stars