Book Review: Sutton

September 7, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction, Historical Fiction 0

SuttonSutton by J.R. Moehringer
Historical Fiction (Released September, 2012)
386 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased

Plot Summary 

Willie Sutton, the notorious Depression-era bank robber who was on the FBI’s first ever Most Wanted List, is released from prison on Christmas Eve and takes a newspaper reporter and photographer on a trip down memory lane.

My Thoughts

Sutton contains lots of action that you would expect from a story about a bank robber – two of his escapes from maximum security prison left me wondering if he was the inspiration for Andy Dufresne’s breakout from Shawshank State Penitentiary. 

But, Willie Sutton wasn’t your average bank robber – he seriously studied his craft, was an avid reader, fancied himself a “right guy,” and was considered somewhat of a folk hero by much of the general public. Moehringer probably portrayed Sutton as a much better guy than he actually was, but it was great for the book. 

Sutton is not just driven by a good story, there is a pleasant rhythm to Moehringer’s writing style – short sentences, pared down language, and spot on dialogue (especially Sutton’s).  This one is going on my Books for Guys List.

Book Review: State of Wonder

September 5, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction 0

State of WonderState of Wonder
by Ann Patchett, Fiction (Released June, 2011)
Bottom Line: Read it.
Summary: Dr. Marina Singh is sent to the Amazon to gather information on the mysterious death of a colleague and the status of a fellow doctor’s (Dr. Annick Swenson) groundbreaking research with the Lakashi tribe, where the women give birth well into their seventies.
My Thoughts: People had been telling me to read this book for awhile and I kept procrastinating because I thought Patchett’s “much acclaimed” Bel Canto was one of those “literary” darlings that was actually pretty boring. What a mistake! I loved this book! The implications of Dr. Swenson’s research are mind-blowing to think about in a “what if” scenario for real life. And, reading about the Lakashi tribe reminded me a bit of Born to Run (minus the long distance running, of course). Patchett does a great job of enveloping you in this remote, intriguing, but dangerous world. State of Wonder is on my Book Club Recommendations List.

Book Review: Crossing to Safety

September 2, 2013 Books to Skip, Classics, Fiction 0

Crossing to Safety was the selection for my Book Club’s August meeting. 

Crossing to SafetyCrossing to Safety
by Wallace Stegner, Fiction (Released 1987)

Bottom Line: Skip it.
Summary: The story of Larry and Sally Morgan and Charity and Sid Lang’s lifelong friendship, which began during Larry and Sid’s teaching jobs at the University of Wisconsin in the 1930’s.
My Thoughts: I feel like this has unintentionally been the summer of reading about friendship for me – with The Interestings, A Dual Inheritance, and now this one! This book reminded me of a bell curve – I liked the middle, but not the beginning or the end. I thought the first chapter, which actually talks about the end of the story, was completely confusing. I couldn’t tell where they were or why they were there. However, it did set the stage for the big suspenseful element in an otherwise character-driven story (how and when did Sally injure her legs?). Following the first chapter, the story reverts to chronological order with how the Langs and Morgans meet at Wisconsin and are instantly drawn to each other. This part also begins the themes of friendship and relationship dynamics that drive the story. The Langs both come from a pressure-filled world of inherited wealth and the Morgans from more humble backgrounds where Larry’s father told him to “do what you like to do. It’ll probably turn out to be what you do best.”. These different backgrounds will play a big part in the Morgans’ and Langs’ relationship dynamics throughout the book. You can also begin to see the power imbalance that characterizes the Langs’ marriage and how that affects the dynamics between both couples. “Part II” of the book focuses on the Morgans’ long stay at Battell Pond, Charity’s family’s compound in Vermont. I loved this part of the book as it was all about the power of family (especially extended family that “swarmed like termites”) and the closeness that can result from having a family gathering spot. Finally, there is a section where both couples live in Florence, and it was my least favorite. It reads like the travel journal of someone who is obsessed with checking every possible historical site off his/her “to do” list. There’s not much description about the places they visit and even less focus on the relationship dynamics, which are the truly interesting part of this book. The ending is fitting given the relationship dynamics at play, but I was getting bored of it all by that point and just wanted to be finished with the book. Despite liking some things about Crossing to Safety (the middle of the story and Stegner’s writing style, even though it was a bit more pretentious than the simple writing I’m usually drawn to), they just weren’t enough to recommend reading it.

Book Review: Shantaram

August 30, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction 0

ShantaramShantaram: A Novel
by Gregory David Roberts, Fiction (Released September, 2004)

Bottom Line: Read it…but saddle up for a long one.
Summary: An Australian convict escapes maximum security prison to Bombay, where he finds friendship, love, and an unbelievable amount of adventure.
My Thoughts: The amazing thing about this book is that Lin’s (the Australian escaped convict) experiences are said to be largely autobiographical, while the characters and dialogue are fiction. If even a quarter of the things that happened to this guy are true, it’s one heck of a story that takes you to a Bombay slum, into the inner workings of a local Mafia Council, and to Afghanistan during the war with the Russians. Shantaram is a love letter to Bombay, but Roberts does not shy away from covering its dark side (corruption, squalor, a slave trade, drug culture, and an entrenched Mafia). He portrays the “dark side” elements almost with endearment…like they’re offbeat quirks that add to the city’s charm. Lin’s lovable friend, Prabaker, steals the show with his hilarious broken English…I’m not sure if his humor is intentional or not, but it’s funny nonetheless. My one criticism is that Roberts often waxes philosophical and the language he uses when writing these unnecessary sections is completely over the top. Shantaram is going on my Books for Guys and Time to Kill lists.

Book Review: Popular Crime

August 28, 2013 Books to Read, Crime, Nonfiction 0

Popular CrimePopular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence
by Bill James, Nonfiction – Crime
Bottom Line: Read it…if you like crime stories.

Summary: A study of tabloid crime from the 1800′s through present day including the implications of the media’s involvement in crimes and trials, the public’s fascination with certain types of crimes, theories of famous unsolved crimes (i.e. JFK’s assassination and JonBenet Ramsey), and thoughts on the criminal justice system.
My Thoughts: 
This is a totally random book that I discovered in a recent Bill Simmons column on ESPN.  Though PC is a bit random and includes too many obscure cases, James’ discussion of famous cases (i.e. Sam Sheppard, the Zodiac, the Boston Strangler, the Lindbergh Baby, OJ Simpson, Robert Hansen, and JonBenet Ramsey) is fascinating.  He also includes interesting macro level observations about crime such as the fact that many serial killers are sons of prostitutes.  Popular Crime isn’t for everyone, but it’s an unique read if you find yourself following crime cases in the news. I’m adding it to my Books for Guys List.

Book Review: A Dual Inheritance

August 25, 2013 Books to Skip, Fiction 0

A Dual InheritanceA Dual Inheritance: A Novel
by Joanna Hershon, Fiction (Released May, 2013)

Bottom Line: Skip it.
Summary: Ed Cantowitz, a rough around the edges Jew, and Hugh Shipley, an old line Fishers Island WASP, meet as “Harvard men” in the 1960’s and experience a roller coaster, multi-generational friendship.
My Thoughts: Amazon said this book would appeal to people that liked Rules of Civility and The Marriage Plot (both of which I reviewed in 2012 and liked); however, I didn’t think it measured up to either of those books. I thought it was more like a far less interesting version of The Interestings (which I loved). While the theme of friendship over a lifetime was similar, The Interestings had six central characters and extremely honest writing to carry the story. A Dual Inheritance really only had two primary characters (Hugh and Ed, with Hugh’s girlfriend, Helen, playing a large role as well) and they were not compelling enough to sustain the book for almost 600 pages. Ed is certainly the most entertaining…he’s extremely ambitious, calls it like it is, and says things you’re not supposed to say. Hugh is very proper and uncomfortable in his own skin…and with his own privileged background. The best part of the book is the later college years, when Hugh and Ed are together all the time and the theme of “poor Jew enters wealthy WASP land” creates some of the book’s most interesting situations. The section when Ed accompanies Hugh and Helen to her parents’ house on Fishers Island illustrates this theme with numerous cringe-inducing moments. After their college years, the story essentially splits into two threads…Hugh helping start health clinics in the African bush and Ed pursuing power on Wall Street. I found the “Ed thread” pretty good reading, as his character’s spice carried the story. But, Hugh had a hard time carrying his thread on his own, without Ed. It’s almost like Hugh needs Ed as a foil to be more than two-dimensional. This is another one of those middle-of-the-road books that I didn’t hate, but didn’t love either. I’ll probably forget the main characters’ names in two months.

Book Review: One Second After

August 23, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction 0

One Second AfterOne Second After
by William R. Forstchen, Fiction

Bottom Line: Read it.
Summary: The small town of Black Mountain, North Carolina fights to survive after the United States is hit by an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) attack.
My Thoughts:
 This is a book about something that has not yet happened on Earth, but is entirely possible. An EMP is a nuclear explosion that happens far above Earth, causing all present day electronics to instantly fry, sending civilization back a few centuries. There was a government report released to Congress about this threat the same day as the 9/11 Commission Report, which obviously meant it got zero attention. The story of Black Mountain is about how a small community tries its best to survive this disaster. This book is extremely harsh (but probably accurate) in portraying the disintegration of society and all the horrifying things that come with that. One Second After is not for the faint of heart, but is captivating if you can handle the barbarianism and are interested in little known threats to our country…and it will certainly make you think a bit differently the next time you lose power. I’m adding this one to the Books for Guys List.

Book Review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore

August 21, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction, Mysteries/Thrillers 1

Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hr BookstoreMr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel
by Robin Sloan, Fiction (Released October, 2012)
Bottom Line: Read it.
 Clay Jannon’s new job at a bookstore with a mysterious collection of books and clientele leads him to try to solve the mystery of a centuries old secret society.
My Thoughts: This book is about much more than a bookstore – it touches on code breaking, Google (the company), computer capabilities, ancient books and fonts, and incredibly odd people. I am not really interested in any of those things, but loved this book. I think a writer is special if he/she is able to make me love a book about something I’m not interested in (i.e. Michael Lewis’ Moneyball – I couldn’t care less about baseball) and Sloan does that here. This book is wonderfully quirky with a weird concoction of ancient and futuristic mixed in with hints of Dan Brown. And, the writing style is catchy and modern. I have no clue how Sloan ever came up with a plot like this and made it remotely believable, but my hats off to him. This one is going on my Book Club Recommendations and Page Turners lists.

Book Review: Dad is Fat

August 18, 2013 Books to Read, Memoirs, Nonfiction, Something Light 0

Dad is FatDad Is Fat
by Jim Gaffigan, Nonfiction – Memoir 
(Released May, 2013)

Bottom Line: Read it…but only if you have kids or are currently pregnant.
Essays about Jim’s experience raising five children in a two bedroom Manhattan apartment. Yes, you read that correctly.
My Thoughts: I found Dad is Fat listed in the “books” section of a magazine called The Week that my cousin had left lying around. Since I just moved out of Manhattan because my husband and I had gotten fed up with the unique hassles of raising our children there, I figured this thing would be right up my alley. I enjoyed the book and could relate to some of his stories and anecdotes, but did not find it laugh out loud funny like many reviews indicated. I definitely found it humorous and smiled many times, but I didn’t think it was as funny as it could have been given the material Gaffigan most certainly had to work with. It didn’t have as many Manhattan-specific anecdotes as I expected, but this broadens the book’s appeal outside of Manhattanites. The first essay about Jim’s experience traveling to the Grand Canyon with his brother and sister-in-law and their one year old was actually the funniest one in there – and it was before Jim even had children. His essay about applying sunscreen to five screaming, thrashing toddlers is funny and relatable (applying sunscreen to one screaming, thrashing toddler is hard enough!). And, his essay about how cousins completely make family gatherings, especially for children, is touching and so true in my experience as well! I also obviously marveled at the Gaffigan’s ability to manage five children at all, much less in Manhattan and while subscribing to the philosophy of attachment parenting…I mean, good lord, it’s a wonder they have any sanity! I did get a little annoyed with Gaffigan’s writing style – he is a stand-up comedian and it was obvious in a cheesy way at times. He seems to have a fondness for bad puns (i.e. when talking about how horrible kids are with chewing gum, he says “I am definitely pro-gum control”) and randomly inserted jokes that don’t really fit the story. Sometimes it felt like he left an “insert joke here” note to himself as he was writing and came back later to fill it in. Even though I did have some issues with the book, it was an entertaining, relatable read overall and would be great for the beach. Dad is Fat is going on my Summer Reading List.

Book Review: Motherland

August 15, 2013 Books to Skip, Fiction, Something Light 0

MotherlandMotherland: A Novel
by Amy Sohn, Chick Lit (Released August, 2012)

Bottom Line: Skip it.
Summary: In this sequel to Prospect Park West, five Brooklyn families struggle with parenthood and maintaining their relationships.
My Thoughts:
 I needed a lighter book after my last two (One Second After and The Sandcastle Girls) and I liked Prospect Park West, so thought I would enjoy this one. Amazon said Sohn “delivers a candid, unsentimental look at modern marriage”. Well, I don’t know whose marriages Amazon is basing this observation on, but I thought these characters were over the top, fairly unlikable, and not very relatable. It seemed like Sohn was trying to ratchet up Prospect Park West‘s realistic plot enough to warrant a sequel, but ended up resorting to oddball gimmicks because she had run out of plausible story lines (i.e. a masseur that specializes in sucking on women’s toes). Give Prospect Park West a try, but don’t bother with Motherland.