28 March 2010

The Well and the Mine (Gin Phillips)

Available at all good bookstores, courtesy of Penguin Books South Africa.

"After she threw the baby in, nobody believed me for the longest time. But I kept hearing that splash."

Wouldn't you chalish [Yiddish, v.: yearn] to read a book that started there? Well, I did. And it was worth it.

This, Gin Phillips' first novel, is set in a small coal mining town in Alabama in Depression-damaged 1931 - where little Tess Moore watches from her favourite night-time hiding place, the back porch, as a strange woman lifts the cover of the family well and without a word, tosses a baby in.

The story shifts narrators often and suddenly, which I usually don't like. But each of the characters (Albert, Tess's father; Leta, her mother; Virgie, her older sister; and tiny Jack, her baby brother) is so likeable and so real that this device soon becomes comfortable and indeed, useful.

Each in their own way, the family members try to get to the bottom of the baby in the well, all the while mildly disbelieving. And in the end, against the overarching tapestry of the hardest, hungriest of times in American history, they find the answer.


Free Food for Millionaires (Min Jin Lee)

Available at Exclusive Books and all good bookstores.

As I've said before, I'm not a book buyer. Reviewers (and Kindle owners) seldom are. But this book was on sale. And the title intrigued me. So I did what we're never supposed to do, and I bought it largely based on the cover. Lucky me.

Free Food for Millionaires has been positioned as a potential 'Great American Novel' which is, um, a little out there - but it is a super read. Have a go at the first bit of the blurb, and you'll see what I mean:

"Casey Han's years at Princeton have given her 'a refined diction, an enviable golf handicap, wealthy friends, a popular white boyfriend, and a magna cum laude degree in economics'. But no job, and a number of bad habits."
And it gets better from there. Casey Han is fabulous - a gal with a designer lifestyle she can't possibly afford, a knack for choosing the right friends and the wrong men, and a spectacular taste in and addiction to beautiful hats. Hats?! I ask you.

She's also trying to make it in high finance, from the bottom up, while dragging behind her all of the fundamental crises of immigrants' children, class struggle, social status and, yes, love.

All this, against the backdrop of Nineties New York. Read it.

P.S. I realise that the hats and clothing and man drama collaborate to make this book sound alarmingly like chick lit, which I unreservedly and unapologetically despise, but I promise it isn't. Vaguely. Even a little bit.


Bright Shiny Morning (James Frey)

Available at Exclusive Books and all good bookstores.

I have to be honest here... When Oprah publicly glorified and then just-as-publicly crucified James Frey for writing an 'autobiographical account' of his drug-addicted past that was, actually, largely fiction, I snorted and harrumphed along with everyone else. The shyster! I thought. The liar. The cheat. I bet he can't even write.

Silly me.

As the Evening Standard so aptly puts it, 'Frey really can write. Brilliantly. And if you don't think so f*** you.' (Frey also has a sense of humour. His first page reads, 'Nothing in this book should be considered accurate or reliable.')

Anyway, back to the point...

Bright Shiny Morning rips the glittery veil off the city of Los Angeles, revealing beneath its pocked and grimy skin, topped with a pair of fairly pretty (if bloodshot) eyes. To do so, Frey uses a cast of related-yet-unrelated characters who get up to mischief or sadden us or force us to recognise within them strong hints of real celebrities (look out for Tom Cruise, Perez Hilton and several others). Frey also injects each chapter with real-life facts, stats and figures about LA - some of which are, frankly, horrifying.

To say that I loved this book beyond reason is true. To say that it made me even more afraid of Los Angeles than three previous visits have caused me to be, is truer. Particularly since I am married to an actor. But what's truest of all is that James Frey is a kick-ass writer and I no longer care whether or not he lied unashamedly in A Million Little Pieces. I'm going to read it, and My Friend Leonard, anyway.


Ways of Staying (Kevin Bloom)

Available at Exclusive Books and all good bookstores.

Reviewers usually don't buy books. Why would we? We're lucky and suitably smug buggers who typically take delivery of a large box every month - free, gratis, for nothing - thanks to the many superb publishers out there (Penguin, chief among them).

And since the arrival of my Kindle, I buy new books even less. But that's another self-satisfied rant for another day...

My point is that I bought Kevin Bloom's Ways of Staying. I didn't even have a book voucher. I took the money out of my purse and paid for it. (Which hurt. A lot.) It's not my usual choice of reading material, in that I'm not a wild fan of local authors, much less local journos who are much, much smarter than me and whose regular columns I seldom, if ever, understand. But the blurb spoke to me.

Here's why.

Like many, we've been thinking about emigration. In a vague, passive-aggressive, weak-willed sort of a way, but still. I've been moaning about how I didn't work this hard to move to Boston and be 'poor'. My husband's been whining about how shitty the service is here and how, in the States, you get Amazon deliveries the next day. To the front door. (We don't talk about crime. It's too real an issue.)

And Bloom's blurb ends thus:

"Ways of Staying is in the final analysis a love letter to a country that will not be forsaken. This is not only the story of why we stay, and how; it's the story of who we are."

So I brought the book home, took it on holiday with me a week or two later, and didn't put it down again til I was done. Oy vey. It's a ride and a half, through truth and lies and human suffering and humour and the tragedies of communities including my own tiny Jewish one. On the surface pretty harrowing, its content is surprisingly palatable, thanks to Bloom's interesting narrative style and on-the-ground insights.

Also, as he's a journo by day, he writes clean. None of the droning waffle, effusive adjective use and academiish you'd expect from someone with a Writing Fellowship.

I never like to give too much away in my reviews, so I won't here either. But my parting shot is this: if you've ever considered leaving the country because you feel like you can't take the drama any more; if you've even dwelt on the idea briefly and then put it out of your mind; or if you've had it and you're outta here, this brilliant book should be your next step. At the very least, you can read it on the plane.


07 March 2010

I've been the slackest of slack reviewers lately...

I've been reading a lot (but not as much as usual, thanks to audiobooks and my Kindle full of old classics), and gradually adding review books to the teetering 'To be urgently reviewed' pile on my desk. (Which I largely ignore, but for balancing the occasional coffee cup on it.) This means, of course, that I haven't actually posted anything substantial for some time. Apologies. I do plan to remedy the situation. Soonest. So please check back in a coupla days...