Saturday, January 17, 2009

Books, Part 2: Skinny Dipping, Sitting in Airports, and Lots of Southern Ambiance

Here is the follow-up to my last blog listing good books I've read lately. This only includes books from last fall & winter. The newest books I have read will have to be reviewed at some point later in time...

  • Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen: Hiaasen writes books set in his native Florida, and they are every bit as hot and intriguing as you might discern simply from the setting. In this novel, Hiaasen returns to the loveable rebel Mick Stranahan, who began his literary life in Hiaasen’s book Skin Tight. This time, Mick rescues the beautiful Joey Perrone after her sleaze of a husband Chaz tosses her off a cruise ship. As Mick and Joey plot their revenge against Chaz, a whole host of winning characters become intertwined with the plot and lend a wonderful humor and depth to the story. The villains are bad (and bad at being bad), the good guys win, and everybody ends up happy. I recommend this and any other Carl Hiaasen book, particularly the first Mick Stranahan story. However, Skinny Dip works perfectly well as a stand-alone work, as well.
  • Clay's Quilt by Silas House: House’s beautiful novel set in the Kentucky coal hills follows the life of Clay Sizemore. While Clay is a good ol’ country boy, his life is anything but boring. His mother was killed when he was five, his aunt who raised him sees visions, and his love interest Alma has recently escaped a violent marriage. House’s writing would be enough without an excellent plotline, but together the two are magical. Read this (one of my favorite novels of all time), as well as the two other companion novels that center around the Sizemore family at various times from the 1800s to Clay’s present day: A Parchment of Leaves and The Coal Tattoo.
  • House and Home by Kathleen McCleary: In this debut novel, McCleary introduces readers to the flawed but lovable Ellen Flanagan. Ellen is in the middle of several life changing events when the novel occurs. She is in the middle of a divorce from her long-time husband and father of their two young girls. She is also in the middle of selling their family’s house because they can no longer afford it after her husband’s money-losing inventions and her own opening of a coffeeshop. In the novel Ellen develops a relationship with the new buyer’s husband, as well as a hatred for the wife. She cannot stand the thought of anyone moving into her lovingly painted and decorated home, and she goes to great lengths to stop them from doing so. Hopefully, this is the beginning of many more beautifully written novels to come from new author Kathleen McCleary.
  • Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles: Miles has taken on a large project in his novel Dear American Airlines, but it is not more than he can handle. The novel is written in the ambitious style of a(n extremely long) letter. To – of course – American Airlines. The protagonist Bennie Ford is stuck, along with several thousand other passengers, in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. It is the eve of his only daughter’s wedding, and as a result of some plane delays, he is not going to make it. As Ford sits in the airport, he pens this rant to the airlines, asking for a refund and then explaining why he – more than the other passengers he is sure will request the same – deserves one. Ford goes backwards and forwards in time, sometimes narrating his current surroundings in the airport and at other times relating his life up until this point. Ford’s regrets are many, and he tells the airline (and therefore, the reader) about them all: his mother, a mentally ill woman in the last stages of her life; his relationship with his daughter’s mother, with whom he fell deeply in love with in New Orleans; his lack of participation in his daughter’s life; and most profoundly, his alcoholism which is to blame for it all. Miles manages to present Ford as a character whom the reader feels for, rather than a character the reader hates, in spite of his many mistakes. It is a poignant first novel from an author I hope to read a lot more of in the future.
  • Truth & Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett: In this seamlessly written “love story” for her best friend, Ann Patchett describes the late author Lucy Grealy and their twenty year relationship. At times hilarious and at times tear-jerking, Truth & Beauty is the most real account of female friendship that I have ever experienced in book form. Neither Patchett nor Grealy are perfect friends; they hurt each other, they hurt themselves at times, and they feel real emotions – jealousy, admiration, love, pride. Grealy is presented as an immensely talented but fatally flawed character; in other words, a human being. Patchett loves Grealy, supports her, but ultimately cannot save her, as none of us can save anyone else. While Grealy’s sister and family took issue with Patchett’s supposed “capitalizing” on both her friendship with Lucy and her untimely death, I felt that Patchett wrote this as part of a grieving that she couldn’t do any other way. I also felt that her written tribute was the only tribute that she had inside her to give to Lucy, given the importance that writing had been in both their lives. It is a moving work that I gave to my mother as soon as I finished. I pressed it into her hands, saying simply, “Read this. You have to.”
  • When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris: In satirist David Sedaris’ latest set of essays/stories, he continues to make you both laugh and cringe at the hilarity of his own life. Some pieces in the book “spoke” to me more than others; for example, Sedaris writes a lengthy piece about an elderly neighbor who he ends up spending more time than necessary with; they become “friends” in a love-hate sort of way. Half the time, she makes him and his partner dinner (almost all of which he describes as inedible), and the other half of the time they are yelling obscenities at each other. This piece is Sedaris at his best: hilarious, real, but honest and at times heartbreaking. Towards the end of the book, he goes off on a self-indulgent tangent which I didn’t particularly enjoy, primarily about his time spent in Europe. All in all, however, an excellent read from a wonderful speaker who also translates well into the written word.
  • sTori Telling by Tori Spelling: The infamous Tori Spelling tells her side of the story in this autobiography. Beginning with her childhood and going to present-day, Spelling tells readers her version of the much-publicized life she has lived thus far. While much of the money tales are true (think snow machine in Hollywood at Christmas so that she and her brother could sled), Spelling also clears the air on everything from her estranged relationship with her mother and her infidelity during her first marriage. While admitting her own faults, Spelling also explains her feelings during various tabloid times in her life, from 90210 to her father’s death and her mother’s outspoken insults. As a fan of 90210 and Tori and Dean: Inn Love, I very much enjoyed Spelling’s comedic version of her life. As a human being, I sympathized with her for the hurts she has endured in life and the public eye being always on her. I think that people reading this book will find a different Tori Spelling than the one they make fun of; they might even like her – even if they don’t ever watch her reality show.
  • Olive Kitterige by Elizabeth Strout: Strout writes a unique novel-in-short-stories in her newest title Olive Kitteridge. Olive is a schoolteacher in a small fishing town in northern Maine. She is brash and heavyset and, in many ways, unlikeable. She is seen in each of the various stories, sometimes as the main character and sometimes only as a peripheral character or in a brief mention. Through these stories, however, Strout shows us some surprising qualities to Olive Kitteridge, and in the end she becomes a character worthy of our sympathy. I did not enjoy Strout’s first novel, the much-lauded Amy and Isabelle. This novel was both depressing and uplifting all at the same time. It was also an enjoyable read, written with skill and expertise. I look forward to Strout’s next effort after two very different novels.
  • Mermaids in the Basement by Michael Lee West: West outdoes herself in her latest southern female fiction masterpiece. Known for her slightly eccentric but always delightfully colorful characters, West delivers in her newest work. Renata is a movie-script writer whose director lover has just made tabloid headlines with his latest leading lady clutching his thigh in a London bar. Renata flees to her grandmother’s estate on the Alabama Gulf Coast, a deep south where the moss hangs from the trees and cocktail hour is held nightly. There Renata learns from her grandmother and her grandmother’s cast of crazy friends the “real” story behind her mother and father’s tumultuous marriage and divorce. In the process, Renata learns something about herself and attempts to mend her estranged relationship with her father. Michael Lee West is right on target, as usual, with both her plotline and her dialogue, both dripping with sweet iced tea and spiked with horseradish from the shrimp cocktail sauce.
  • The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski: Wroblewski is a new writer about whom everyone is abuzz. His debut novel, Edgar Sawtelle, has received rave reviews from everyone from the New York Times to Wroblewski sets his modern-day retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the forestland of Wisconsin. The title character is a mute-from-birth whose family raises a specially-engineered new breed of dogs called Sawtelles. Edgar must face his own demons, as well as his uncle Claude in this fabulous story. Playing the part of Ophelia is one of Sawtelles, a house dog named Almondine. Complete with ghostly visitors and family secrets, Wroblewski’s novel is a masterpiece everyone should experience.

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