Thursday, July 31, 2008

Matt recommends "When You Are Engulfed in Flames"

Fans of humorist David Sedaris will find much to love in his latest collection of personal essays, "When You Are Engulfed in Flames." (And if you aren't familiar with him, it's a great place to start.) With his trademark ability to highlight the absurd (and grotesque) elements of his daily life, he manages to draw out both the humor and poignance in a number of his experiences, and by association, ours. His dark and neurotic wit is a singular one, as I was reminded when single sentences left me laughing so hard I was in tears. Recommended for adults. (Also available on audiobook read by the author, recommended for his pitch-perfect, deadpan delivery.)

Monday, July 14, 2008

Phil Recommends "All Over But the Shoutin" by Rick Bragg

All Over But the Shoutin'

Rick Bragg is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for the New York Times and the quality of his writing shows in "All Over But the Shoutin." This memoir tells of Bragg's childhood in Alabama, growing up with two brothers, a loving mother, and an alcoholic father. Bragg's mother manages to provide for her family even after being abandoned by her husband. Bragg's talent for storytelling lands him plenty of work in journalism and takes him around the world. The stories of his relationship with his family - particularly with his mother - make this an enjoyable read.

This book is appropriate for adults.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Matt recommends "Without a Map"

Meredith Hall's first book is an unflinching and unsentimental memoir of the indelible pain she felt as a result of being shunned by her family and community when she was a teenager. In 1965, living in a comfortable, sheltered New Hampshire town, she gets pregnant at the age of 16. Her parents react to her mistake with contempt and disappointment that becomes an icy, profound silence over the course of the pregnancy. Her doctor treats her with open disgust, and her former friends and their families suddenly want nothing to do with her. She describes in simple, direct, and elegant prose the process by which this social death wears away her identity, leaving her adrift and alone, her only companion the baby growing inside her – the baby she knows she will be forced to give away.

Hall tells her story in a non-linear way, so that it jumps from time period to time period, smartly mimicking the capricious nature of memory. She sheds light on the relative peace and comfort of her childhood (which only makes her parents’ betrayal more heartbreaking); she details her poverty-stricken days wandering around Europe and the Middle East, searching for meaning in faraway places after years of emptiness; and perhaps most poignantly, she describes her later life as the struggling mother of “legitimate” sons, and her eventual meeting with the (now adult) son she had to give up. Her themes are heavy, and include the construction of memory and identity, the painful failures of well-intentioned love, and the real difficulty of forgiving or (even harder) forgetting. But “Without a Map” is elevated by the author’s haunting, powerful writing; her intelligent and clear-eyed attempt to mine her life story in order to dig up some wisdom was, to me, absolutely successful, and nearly impossible to put down. (You can also listen to a great interview with the author on public radio’s “Here and Now" by following this link: ) Recommended for adults.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Colette recommends "Black Water"

Black Water, written in 1992, is based upon the 1969 Chappaquiddick "Incident' [read: TRAGEDY] involving Ted Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne, a young aide who had worked on his brother Bobby's campaign the year before.

This novel is as compact and incisive at 150 pages as My Sister, My Love [see review] is overwritten! Speculation about Chappaquiddick has been out of the news for almost 40 years, yet reading this small book makes you feel as if you are the one dazzled by the senator and trapped underwater in the car....waiting for rescue when none is coming.

Succinct and well written, the chapters flip back and forth from being in the water, her attraction to the charisma and reputation of the almost mythical political hero, her family, her aspirations, her forgivable vanities. We understand her naivte and cringe because we know what the horrendous outcome will be. It is SO good, because it is so controlled and tight. And you wonder: you can ask forgiveness of others, but what about forgiveness of yourself.

Colette recommends "My Sister, My Love"

The prolific Oates has authored a novel based upon the unsolved homicide of JonBenet Ramsey in 1996. It is SO thinly veiled that it seems as if you are reading still another tabloid expose on the tragedy.

At 562 pages, this rambling, circuitous novel is the story of a nine year old ice skating prodigy, her family, the community in which they live - all remembered by her brother 10 years later. It is overblown, excessive, blowsy and sloppy BUT VERY COMPELLING and ,oh, so sad. Oates utilizes the traditional 'chapter' format, yet skips along in an amorphous stream of consciousness narrative with extra footnotes as an aside to clarify issues. It makes you shake your head at our society, its hypocrisy and concept of celebrity. It makes you wonder what REALLY goes on in someone else's home; it makes you wish you didn't know.
This novel is way way over the top, but a very guilty pleasure for a summer read.

Juxtapose My Sister, My Love with her 1992 Black Water, another novel loosely based upon an actual event; Black Water is as taut as this is overabundant.