Book Review: The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry

(I must be back in London from Paris by now. We wanted to take the Chunnel Train for that experience. I hope the French people were okay with my woeful French!)

Initially, I was interested in The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry because it’s the success story of a self-published author making it into the big time, and a two million dollar contract. In doing my research for this post to get the particulars, I came upon an NPR story that aired back in 2008. According to that piece, Ms. Barry and her husband thought they could publish the book themselves, since they had a company which published games, but found that the game experience, while helpful, wasn’t exactly the same. The book is set in Salem so they started locally there, and gained support from local book stores, who recommended The Lace Reader to book clubs nearby. The first two clubs got printed pages of the book in boxes, as none had been printed yet, and the book clubs were encouraged to respond with feedback.

Eventually they printed 2000 copies, word of mouth spread to book clubs all over the country and the local bookstores talked the book up and helped them make important contacts in the publishing world. This led them to a publicist who got the book to the influential Publishers Weekly, and the book got a good review.

Once that happened, a Ms. Rebecca Oliver happened on the scene, a literary agent with a somewhat snarky manner and a disgusting Valley Girl accent. “When one thinks of self-published, there’s a sort of a whole, UHHM, idea of what self-published means and that’s that the author has probably tried to sell the book previously to New York publishers and they’re selling it out of the trunk of their car now. And you assume there is a certain quality to the work.” I wonder if Ms. Oliver has changed her mind, as a few years have gone by since she said this and, as we know, the self-publishing world has evolved just a bit since then, and many agents are looking for other ways to make a living.

I wish there were a way to get that VG accent onto paper. The growly, twanginess and that cute little uplift at the end of the sentence, which makes it, like, a question?

Supposedly, the book has “the kind of plot twists that readers like to dissect”. Yes. That the book has a “very compelling ending”. No.

I beg to disagree. The ending has been described by some to rival The Sixth Sense. Remember that one, where Bruce Willis finally realizes he is dead and neither he (nor the audience) had known that before? It worked, but it was a stretch. Well, this novel’s ending is a real stretch and it doesn’t work. I am frankly amazed that it can be described as “compelling”. To me, it was contrived and unbelievable. Yes, I know. It’s fiction. But still.

I liked the book mostly, the editing was perfect. It started on a somewhat funny note, a nice hook, which I always appreciate. The characters were not perfect people, which I also liked, but the mystery surrounding the drowning death of one woman, and the disappearance of another, while compelling, was resolved in a ho-hum sort of way. The real clincher came very near the end, and I nearly threw the book away at that point.

There were pretty, almost poetic lines at the beginning of each chapter, about the lace and how it could be read, which I liked. There were characters who didn’t need to be in the story at all, which I didn’t like.

I’ll do the Page 99 test on this book and find something I liked and something I didn’t. This page happens to be the first page of Chapter 11. I like the blurb at the beginning of the chapter, it is well-written. The half page of text contains short, choppy sentences. I lot of “I did this and then I did that” – Hemingwayesque, without the distinctive writing style.

The book is written in first person present tense, very difficult for an inexperienced author to do, but I thought this was done well.

I liked it well enough, I had started it once, got halfway through and shelved it before taking it up again and starting over. It was a compelling enough read for the most part, but the ending blew it for me.

Book Review: The Art of Mending by Elizabeth Berg

By this time, I have spent one week in London. I hope it’s going well (these posts have been schedled in advance). Here’s a lovely Women’s Fiction Novel.

Elizabeth Berg writes women’s fiction, and she does it well. She was born around the time most of the people who read this blog were, and she mostly writes stories about that age group. Her books aren’t romance novels but are stories about friendship, families, divorce, even death. I really like Ms. Berg’s novels, I’ve read several of them and I will likely go on to read many more.

The Art of Mending is about a woman, Laura, who makes her living as a quilt artist, designing custom creations for clients. She was always the domestic type, hence the title and says the following about the art of mending:

You’ll always notice the fabric scar, of course, but there’s an art to mending: If you’re careful, the repair can actually add to the beauty of the thing, because it is testimony to its worth.

At a family reunion, her sister reveals some things, things that happened during their childhood, about their mother, things that Laura doesn’t believe, or maybe she half believes, or maybe she really knew all along, but didn’t want to believe. I was hooked, on the suspense of what it was Laura’s sister would tell her, and it kept me reading.

I liked this book, but it might not be my favorite. Some of the others were funnier. Ms. Berg has a distinctive voice, and some of her characters are unusual and quirky. She writes about everyday things, things that could happen to anyone, from breast cancer to broken marriages to high school reunions.

There were characters and revelations and situations and I wasn’t quite sure why they were in the story. An example: Laura decides to throw a small dinner party and the attendees promised to make an interesting mix and then it didn’t happen. Everyone cancelled and I wondered why it was brought up in the first place. I didn’t clearly understand the motivation behind a certain revelation from her husband, and occasionally I felt like some of the story was “filler”.

The author has a way of ending a chapter that is filled with meaning. There might be a name for it; Jodi Picoult does it to an even greater degree than Elizabeth Berg, a way of saying something and then twisting it around, so that it is more dramatic. Here’s an example:

My mother, smiling brightly, looking directly into your eyes before she embraced you tightly, would feel a million miles away. My father, averting his gaze before he took you into his arms, would be the one who felt close.

(If anyone knows the name for that particular technique, please comment!)

There is a section I particularly liked, as Laura described her life and the love she has for her husband. She married later in life, he had lost his first wife, and they are a genuinely happy couple. Laura talks about how nothing has changed for her, as far as her husband is concerned, that he still thrills her, and as a couple, they are as they always were. It was a very sweet internalization, and it made me think.

I would recommend this author to anyone who likes good women’s fiction.

Book Review: Man in the Woods by Scott Spencer

My first full day in London. Bet I’m still jet-lagged! Below is a review of a great novel. It could be called Women’s Fiction, but maybe General Fiction is a better category for it.

This is not the first book I have read by Scott Spencer, but I guess I’d have to say it’s the best I’ve read so far. But I might feel that way, because I’ve just read it. I probably felt the same way after all the others.

There’s just something about Mr. Spencer’s books, his judicious use of passive voice and present tense, that makes his writing lyrical and melancholy. That’s the feeling I got from this novel, an underlying sadness. Something happened, something that was never supposed to happen, that could have been avoided if only Paul, the main character, hadn’t been where he was at the time he was. And still the event could have been avoided even then, but it happened and it was just plain bad luck that it did. It was traumatic. Life changing.

Once the event has taken place, and everything has changed, Paul has to adjust to it. And not only does it change his life, but the life of Kate, the woman with whom he lives. Kate showed up earlier in A Ship Made of Paper and I liked her then too, but since that time, she’s become a recovering alcoholic and written a self-help book called Prays Well With Others. She feels she’s been helped by God, that she has seen the light, that her life is now guided and she shares it with her readers, and because she is a superb writer, she becomes very successful. She and Paul live with her daughter, Ruby, in a rural farmhouse in upstate New York.

The event involves a dog. The dog witnessed the event, and Paul takes the dog to live with him. And Mr. Spencer proves he can capture the essence of the dog, as well as he does his other characters. The dog has a personality, a quiet animal with good days and bad days. He’s predictably sweet and Paul, Kate and Ruby settle in with him, until they can’t remember when he wasn’t around.

Paul is the strong, handsome type, a carpenter, completely smitten with Kate, and Kate loves Paul with a love so all-encompassing, it matters little that there are differences and silences between them. It’s a beautiful love story, and Kate might be a little quicker-witted than Paul, and she makes the majority of the money that supports their household, but that doesn’t matter to her. To be trite, he “completes” her.

There are internalizations of Paul and Kate, which seem to be essays in themselves. No dialogue, just beautiful words, masterful sentences. One of my favorites was one of Kate’s. She is on a timetable, always plotting, planning time for she and Paul to be alone together. He’s a little more casual, he doesn’t seem to recognize that there might be a half hour here or there, when they could be “together” like Kate does. She hurries through life in order to get back to Paul while his path through life is less planned.

An example:

She doesn’t mind doing the work, because of the reward. The slow fill of him as he notches his hips inch by inch closer to her, she enjoys the anticipation of the bright delirium sex unleashes in her, an extremity of emotion and abandon that she has never before experienced and never actually believed other people experienced, either, and she enjoys moving things around in her schedule so there is more time for them to be together. It’s like clearing brush so the flowers can be seen. But there is no question in her mind that if Paul were in her position right now he would not be thinking of how to get out of the city in time to be home so that there was a chance to lie next to her.

Scott Spencer is one of those authors who says so much in a few words, it’s as if each word is carefully chosen. I like to think of his wonderful sentences rolling off the keyboard one after another, but they are so perfect, I doubt that’s how it happens.

He is also a master of adult love affairs, the positive and negative aspects and with obsessive love, evident in his earlier novel, Endless Love, which was made into a movie. I have yet to see it, and maybe I never will because I’ve heard it’s different from the book and a bit, well, cheesy.

Once in a while, a graphic detail might pop out at you, and it can be a little shocking. I saw it in a couple of his other books but not this one so much.

When I’m reading a Scott Spencer novel, I like to read a chapter and think about what I’ve read before starting another. I’m going to be very disappointed when there’s no Scott Spencer books I haven’t read. I like to wait a while between reading them, because I find myself thinking for weeks about what I’ve read.

I give this novel five stars. An enthusiastic five stars.

Monsieur Squirrel

My adrenaline is still pumping. I’m afraid to put my ear buds back in to continue with my French lesson since I want to be able to hear what is going on in the house.

So, here I come, up the basement stairs after tossing in a load of wash (all nicely sorted, and shouted-out, and all the dispensers filled with their appropriate liquids), and I’m practicing the phrase “I don’t understand French” (Je ne comprends pas Français!) over and over because it’s the only thing I’m sure of with the French lessons, that I don’t understand French, and I continue up to my second story loft/office and who is sitting atop the file cabinet but Monsieur Squirrel! 

I dub him Monsieur Squirrel, affectionately, hoping that he is but a scared, out-of-touch, senile old rodent who has wandered in, through an opening we have yet to discover, and once in can’t figure out how to get back out. This isn’t the first time M. Squirrel has gifted us with an appearance. He once showed up in the basement which is a lot harder to get him out of actually, so I guess I can be grateful I found him upstairs.

God. I’m a grown woman and I’m this afraid of something that probably weighs less than one pound? He doesn’t like me either, and runs into a bedroom. I flail around in the hallway, running this way and that, to and fro, trying to decide what to do. If I go downstairs, I’m not sure I’ll have the courage to come back up.

But wait. He’s more afraid of me than I am of him. And then I think holy shit, then he must be fairly well paralyzed with fear. I know he wants to get out of here as much as I want him out, so let’s work together on this. Coaxing isn’t going to work because I’m pretty sure he won’t respond to sweet talk, and I don’t understand Squirrel so a bit of tough love is necessary. Shouting and stomping and scaring the literal crap out of M. Squirrel, so that he and I can reach an agreement and I can be where I want to be (without him) and he can be where he wants to be (with his squirrel buddies, maybe there’s even a Madame Squirrel).

I am afraid if I go downstairs I’ll never have the guts to come back up, knowing he is up here.

But I go downstairs. I open the back door and the front door wide, so he can get out, and venture back upstairs, heart pounding and I’m screaming at the top of my lungs so he’ll be sure to hear me. When I come back up, I decide to open a window in the master bedroom and remove the screen so he has another escape route.  

Gah! As I enter the room I see him dart under the bed! He has now relocated to my bedroom! I vacate the premises and return to the loft and shout. Get out! I see him (thankfully) run out of the bedroom down the stairs to the first floor, but he (duh, M. Squirrel!) completely misses the fact that he’s run right by the open front door.

I chase him around the living room and it works, or at least gets him into the kitchen where there is another opened door. But he (again) ignores his escape to freedom and decides instead to run along the counter and hop onto the computer desk and then bash into a closed window before he leaps up onto the bar. He plops down from there  to the floor and casually strolls outside. I watch him go and have never been so glad to get rid of a houseguest in my life.

But now I’m still kind of spacey and uncertain about it and I’m thinking, what if he comes back? What if he decides he likes it in here? What if he really is old and senile and looks at this as a nice rest home? A place to spend his golden squirrel years?  

I can no longer concentrate on Lesson 4 of The Pimsleur Approach, Quick and Simple French – there’s nothing quick and simple about French, I’m here to tell you – because now I’m sure there must be a whole Squirrel family in residence. It could be a regular Squirrel Sta-cation for all I know.

Thinking that I might return to some level of normalcy later, I postpone French Lesson 4, but vow to take it up this afternoon, when my heart rate has returned to normal. The French lessons are because I’m leaving for Europe in a few days for a month (London / Paris / Rome), so I’m reading Rick Steves books and attempting to learn some French, since I suspect French people will be nicer to you if you at least attempt to speak their language.  I’ve heard that the French don’t like us Américain(e) much, but then I’ve also heard that isn’t true. Not knowing what to expect, I thought I’d at least try learning enough French to convince them that, though I may be a vile and vulgar Américain, I at least cared enough to learn sufficient French to convince les Français of my stupidity and complete ineptitude with their language.

I will be posting reviews of books for the next five weeks, as I’m not sure what kind of blogging I’m going to be able to do whilst over there, across the pond. These are all good books that readers of this blog might enjoy, and were originally posted at another blog site, Boomers and Books.

While we are gone, I hope Monsieur Squirrel doesn’t decide to take up permanent residence here.

Au revoir!

 Images courtesy of freedigitalprints.net