The Bird Sisters by Rebecca Rasmussen

 Summary ~ The Bird Sisters~ Love is timeless. So too is heartbreak.

Whenever a bird flies into a window in Spring Green, Wisconsin, sisters Milly and Twiss get a visit. Twiss listens to the birds’ heartbeats, assessing what she can fix and what she can’t, while Milly listens to the heartaches of the people who’ve brought them. The two sisters have spent their lives nursing people and birds back to health. 

But back in the summer of 1947, Milly was known as a great beauty with emerald eyes and Twiss was a brazen wild child who never wore a dress or did what she was told. That was the summer their golf pro father got into an accident that cost him both his swing and his charm, and their mother, the daughter of a wealthy jeweler, finally admitted their hardscrabble lives wouldn’t change. It was the summer their priest, Father Rice, announced that God didn’t exist and ran off to Mexico, and a boy named Asa finally caught Milly’s eye. And most unforgettably, it was the summer their cousin Bett came down from a town called Deadwater and changed the course of their lives forever.
Character analysis, atmosphere and subtlety are the name of the game in Rebecca Rasmussen’s lovely debut novel The Bird Sisters.  Twiss & Milly are sisters in every sense of the word.  Blood sisters, best friends, supporters, criticizers and playmates.  Life in rural Wisconsin is slow, quiet and calm for the most part.  That is until the church pastor walks away from his faith and his church community, the sisters father suffers unknowing damage from a freak accident and their cousin Bett arrives for the summer.  The Bird Sisters was a slow start for me but once I found my rhythm and became familiar with the characters and their lives I became wrapped up in their stories. 
 
I was disappointed to find myself unwillingly figuring out the secrets way too early that showed themselves later in the book.  I don’t try to do that but my brain just sees things between the lines.  The Bird Sisters surprised me when I found myself welling up due to the heartbreaking sadness that plagued the sisters and their family.  It takes a lot for me to cry when reading and I didn’t realize how invested I was in this book until the first tear fell.  Like the subtle story telling that Rebecca writes so beautifully the emotions crept up on me and took me over like the scent of flowers in a field as you drive by.  Taboo topics are hinted at and then quietly brought to the forefront by Rebecca’s gentle hand. 
 
 
Like The Bird Sisters, its author is sweet, lovely and full of layers.  I had the sincere pleasure of not only meeting Rebecca Rasmussen last night at One More Page Books in Arlington, VA but because of the strange turn of events I had the opportunity to really talk with Rebecca and get to know her quickly but truthfully.  This crazy weather we’ve been having here on the east coast played its tricks about fifteen minutes before Rebecca’s book event was to begin.  Lightning and thunder struck just above the building that One More Page Books is in and that tripped the circuits.  The fire alarms in the building block went off and weren’t reset for two hours.  We all had to stand outside for forty minutes where I proceeded to melt and wither a bit.  Eileen, the store owner and host took matters into her own hands and went across the street to La Cote D’Or Cafe, a quaint restaurant that graciously allowed One More Page Books to hold the book event in their dining room. 
 
 
Once settled the evening proceeded smoothly and quite nicely.  Instead of reading from The Bird Sisters Rebecca took questions from the audience.  I really loved the way she could elaborate on a question and in a way tell a story to get her answer across.  She made me feel better when she discussed the fact that some readers were finding it difficult to get settled into the book.  I had felt the same way and though I love literary fiction and prefer it to “commercial fiction” I still found it challenging at first to find my groove with The Bird Sisters.  Rebecca also answered questions about her publishing experience and sang her editor’s praises.  All in all Rebecca Rasmussen was a joy to meet, talk with and listen to.  If you get the chance to attend one of her upcoming events I highly recommend it.  She will be on the east coast for a little while and you can check out her website for tour dates and locations HERE.
 
If you are looking for a beautifully written book to add to your TBR list pick up The Bird Sisters.  The beautiful cover is just the icing on the cake with this book!
 
Rebecca Rasmussen & Me with The Bird Sisters
 {Rating ~ 4 out of 5}

Book Review ~ The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

Summary ~ The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society  by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows ~  January 1946: London is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War, and writer Juliet Ashton is looking for her next book subject. Who could imagine that she would find it in a letter from a man she’s never met, a native of the island of Guernsey, who has come across her name written inside a book by Charles Lamb.

As Juliet and her new correspondent exchange letters, Juliet is drawn into the world of this man and his friends—and what a wonderfully eccentric world it is. Born as a spur-of-the-moment alibi when its members were discovered breaking curfew by the Germans occupying their island, the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society boasts a charming, funny, deeply human cast of characters, from pig farmers to phrenologists, literature lovers all.

Juliet begins a remarkable correspondence with the society’s members, learning about their island, their taste in books, and the impact the recent German occupation has had on their lives. Captivated by their stories, she sets sail for Guernsey, and what she finds will change her forever.

Written with warmth and humor as a series of letters, this novel is a celebration of the written word in all its guises, and of finding connection in the most surprising ways.

guernseyliterary

What an amazing book this is!  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a gem of a story set in 1946 post-war England and Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands.  The first interesting thing that struck me was that it is a work of fiction, but because the whole book is told through letters between characters, the voices feel real and brilliant.  Juliet Ashton is a gem of a heroine who is the author of a biography about the lesser known Bronte sister, Anne, as well as “Izzy Bickerstaff Goes To War.”  It is while on a book tour for the Izzywork that we meet her and her loving and supportive life long friend and publisher, Sidney Stark.  It is through their letters to each other that you get a sense of their personalities and great admiration for each other.  It is also through letters that the reader gets to know every character in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The war is over and people are once again striking up more light-hearted correspondences and it isn’t long before Juliet receives a letter from a man named Dawsey Adams about  the fact that he is now the proud owner of Juliet’s formerly owned copy of Selected Essays of Eliaby Charles Lamb.  This new correspondence between two strangers with a shared love for the poetry of Charles Lamb is the stepping stone for Juliet to meet and get to know all of Dawsey’s friends and fellow survivors of the German Occupation of Guernsey through the art of letter writing.  We get to meet these wonderful characters as well and their stories that jump from the pages of this book are  heartwarming stories of friendships forged between oddly matched people who are went through the most horrific, depressing and suffer-able events of their time. 

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a surprisingly addictive read of a book that will make you wish it would go on forever.  I loved the way these people took matters into their own hands and cared for people who may never have entered their lives if it weren’t for the Occupation.  Then they let their stories fill the pages of letters they sent to a stranger in London who was willing and eager to read them and create a column which then would become a book to mark their time in history.  All of their stories soon revolved around one special woman who made the greatest sacrifice of them all during the Occupation of their beloved, little island. 

I cannot recommend The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society enough.  At first I wasn’t sure I would be able to get into the story due to the letter style the book was written in, but I am so glad I gave it a chance.  After the first page there was no turning back for me.  I found myself talking about this book with Hubby and friends.  I surprised myself when I physically hit the book at certain upsetting parts and how I took my time reading it because I didn’t want it to end.  Do yourself a favor and pick this book up this weekend.  You are in for a special treat of a story.

{Rating ~ 5 out of 5}

Book Review ~ The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker

Summary ~ The Little Giant of Aberdeen CountyFrom Publishers Weekly~Starred Review.  Baker’s bangup debut mixes the exuberant eccentricities of John Irving’s Garp, Anne Tyler’s relationship savvy and the plangent voice of Margaret Atwood. In an upstate New York backwater, Truly, massive from birth, has a bleak existence with her depressed father and her china-doll–like sister, Serena Jane. Truly grows at an astonishing rate—her girth the result of a pituitary gland problem—and after her father dies when Truly is 12, Truly is sloughed off to the Dyersons, a hapless farming family. Her outsize kindness surfaces as she befriends the Dyersons’ outcast daughter, Amelia, and later leaves her beloved Dyerson farm to take care of Serena Jane’s husband and son after Serena Jane leaves them. Haunting the margins of Truly’s story is that of Tabitha Dyerson, a rumored witch whose secrets afford a breathtaking role reversal for Truly. It’s got all the earmarks of a hit—infectious and lovable narrator, a dash of magic, an impressive sweep and a heartrending but not treacly family drama. It’ll be a shame if this doesn’t race up the bestseller lists.

What an absolutely enthralling, exciting, depressing, uplifting, tear inducing, story-telling book we have in Tiffany Baker’s debut novel, The Little Giant of Aberdeen County.  Truly Plaice is a larger than life character in every sense of the phrase.  She is physically enormous and continues to grow and grow but not only in body but in character, soul and heart.  Truly is not dealt the best hand in life.  Her birth ends her mother’s life (she was huge from the beginning) and when her father passes away and leaves her sister Serena Jane and Truly at the hands of townspeople, the two are forever separated from each other.  They were separated from each other from the very beginning of life though.  Where Truly is large, sturdy, loyal and ugly (on the outside), Serena Jane is petite, beautiful, fragile, flighty and interested in helping herself and not others. 

Truly’s story takes us through her life and there we meet the people who imprint themselves on her soul and in our minds forever.  The doctor/brother-in-law who torments Truly his whole days through and is the most evil character I’ve read in a long while.  The boy who stole Truly’sheart through letters while he was in the jungles of Southeast Asia, fighting for our country.  The teacher who was the first to call Truly by the name she feared to hear the most at a young age; Giant.  The pseudo-sister she finds in Amelia and Amelia’s family who took Truly in when she had no where else to go, and taught her to take life’s punches as they come but to watch out for yourself at all times.  The story that comes about through the relationships that Truly has with these folks is one I won’t soon forget. 

In The Little Giant of Aberdeen County there are representatives of good and evil and then there are moments of grey that can’t be placed in a specific category.  Tiffany Baker has an All-American story that will no doubt hold your attention and imagination past the last page. 

{Rating ~ 5 out of 5}

You can also check out The Washington Post’s review of The Little Giant of Aberdeen County HERE.

Book Review ~ Home Girl by Judith Matloff

Summary ~ Home Girl: Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block

After twenty years as a foreign correspondent in tumultuous locales including Rwanda, Chechnya, and Sudan, Judith Matloff is ready to put down roots and start a family. She leaves Moscow and returns to her native New York City to house-hunt for the perfect spot while her Dutch husband, John, stays behind in Russia with their dog to pack up their belongings. Intoxicated by West Harlem’s cultural diversity and, more important, its affordability, Judith impulsively buys a stately fixer-upper brownstone in the neighborhood.

Little does she know what’s in store. Judith and John discover that their dream house was once a crack den and that “fixer upper” is an understatement. The building is a total wreck: The beams have been chewed to dust by termites, the staircase is separating from the wall, and the windows are smashed thanks to a recent break-in. Plus, the house–crowded with throngs of brazen drug dealers–forms the bustling epicenter of the cocaine trade in the Northeast, and heavily armed police regularly appear outside their door in pursuit of the thugs and crackheads who loiter there.

Thus begins Judith and John’s odyssey to win over the neighbors, including Salami, the menacing addict who threatens to take over their house; MacKenzie, the literary homeless man who quotes Latin over morning coffee; Mrs. LaDuke, the salty octogenarian and neighborhood watchdog; and Miguel, the smooth lieutenant of the local drug crew, with whom the couple must negotiate safe passage. It’s a far cry from utopia, but it’s a start, and they do all they can to carve out a comfortable life. And by the time they experience the birth of a son, Judith and John have even come to appreciate the neighborhood’s rough charms.

Blending her finely honed reporter’s instincts with superb storytelling, Judith Matloff has crafted a wry, reflective, and hugely entertaining memoir about community, home, and real estate. Home Girl is for anyone who has ever longed to go home, however complicated the journey.

I’ll admit that I have never been to Harlem.  I’ve watched the Harlem Globetrotters on T.V. in exhibition games as well as when they were cartoon guest stars on Scooby Doo.  I have watched performances on T.V. that were broadcast from the stage of The Apollo Theatre too.  After reading Judith Matloff’s Home Girl, my interest in Harlem has piqued.  First of all, I did not realize exactly where Harlem was in relation to the Theatre and Garment Districts, Midtown Manhattan and another area I have frequented when in NYC, Soho. 

Home Girl is a retelling of events that happened to a former New Yorker and her Dutch husband John, when she purchases, practically without any idea of what she was getting into, a row-house on a drug infested block in Harlem.  After the rose colored glasses had been yanked off, Judith realized just how much work she and her husband would be in for.  Not only the work and money that would have to go into renovating their dilapidated house, but the work it would take to co-exist with crack dealers and scared, racist neighbors, who weren’t willing to make a difference themselves.

The house eventually recovers from the cancer that had plagued it for too many years.  Judith overcomes her odd feelings of loyalty to the drug dealers on her block and begins attending some community policing program meetings and starts to unite with the neighbors and community.  She finally feels a sense of belonging where, for the first three months after buying her house, she felt like the crazy outsider who didn’t belong.

After the adventure that was Judith and John’s life as foreign corespondents over the last twenty years, followed by the seemingly treacherous times after buying a major fixer-upper in West Harlem, they are faced with the most unknown of all territories, Parenthood!

Home Girl is an enjoyable, fly-on-the-wall look into the lives of author Judith Matloff, her patient and trusting husband, their wonderful dog, their new baby, the house that they resurrected from death’s door and the many dangerous, outrageous and kooky characters on their block that they adopt when they move to West Harlem and a colorful array of tenants in the upstairs and basement apartments of their beloved brownstone.  Judith captures life pre- and post- 9/11 beautifully and in Home Girl’s post 9/11 chapters, the sadness and unity that New York City goes through is described perfectly.

I loved reading about the relationships Judith built with some scary characters that surrounded her and entered her life.  I winced at all the work Judith and John had to do on their house and I breathed a sigh of relief when it all came together for them and knowing they are still living in their home on that “lawless block” shows that a home can be created out of the most undesirable of conditions.  Just ask some of Judith’s squatter-neighbors! 

{Rating ~ 4 out of 5}

A couple of months ago author Judith Matloff joined us here at Planet Books for her first blog guest post.  You can check it out HERE as well as watch the book trailer for Home Girl.  It’s cool to see the people that Judith got to know and wrote about in Home Girl, and she still spends time with.  To learn more about Judith Matloff, check out her web site HERE.   

Book Review ~ Between Here and April by Deborah Copaken Kogan

Summary ~  When a deep-rooted memory suddenly surfaces, Elizabeth Burns becomes obsessed with the long-ago disappearance of her childhood friend April Cassidy. Driven to investigate, Elizabeth discovers a thirty-five-year-old newspaper article revealing the details that had been hidden from her as a child: April’s mother, Adele, drove with her two young daughters deep into the woods where she killed first them and then herself.

Elizabeth, now a mother herself, tracks down everyone—Adele Cassidy’s neighbor, her psychiatrist, her sister—who might give her the insight necessary to understand how a mother could commit such a monstrous crime.

Elizabeth’s investigation leads her back to herself: her compromised marriage, her demanding children, her increasing self-doubt, her desire for more out of her own life, and finally to a fearsome reckoning with what it means to be a mother and wife.  

Debut novelist (but not writer), Deborah Copaken Kogan has delivered a dark, haunting and mesmerizing book called Between Here and April.  It is the story of two women, sharing a common problem, separated only by time and circumstance.  At first glance the book is a mystery of why a mother in 1972 Suburban Maryland killed herself and her two young daughters.  It soon becomes a look into the lives of two mothers and the affects of depression.

Elizabeth Burns is a freelance photojournalist who has left behind a world of working in exotic, dangerous locations and is now a wife and mother of two girls.  Don’t think that this new life is safer or easier though.  It is filled with doubts, fears, depression and feelings that make Elizabeth feel the only way out is maybe to accept an assignment in war-torn Iraq.  Elizabeth is the epitome of a modern-day working mother, in a tested marriage, facing demons from her past and trying to do everything she can to get it all done. Elizabeth is a protagonist with many unexpected layers.  A private horror is affecting her marriage without her husband even realizing the terrors he brings unknowingly into their bedroom.

While attending a production of the Greek tragedy, Medea, she is haunted by the newly remembered memory of her best friend April from first grade and the rumor that both April and her sister had been murdered by their mother who also killed herself in the same selfish act.  While delving into the mystery of this suburban nightmare, Elizabeth realizes some truths about herself, her own mother and the dark side of motherhood that society tried to ignore in the past. 

The story of what motherhood can do to a woman in the form of postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis and plain old depression is revealing, eye-opening and terrifying.  We may never really know what goes on in the lives of neighbors and friends but in Between Here and April, it is suggested that not everything reflects the perfect picture we see on the outside.  Just as Elizabeth can’t stop thinking about April and what her mother did to her years before, you won’t be able to either.  Between Here and April is a book not easily forgotten.  A complete page turner!

{Rating ~ 4 out of 5}

Between Here and April will be in stores and available on-line Tuesday, October 7th.  Deborah Copaken Kogan also wrote Shutterbabe: Adventures in Love and War, a recount of her time as a photojournalist overseas in some of recent histories most dangerous war zones.

Book Review ~ Loose Girl by Kerry Cohen

Summary ~ Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity

For everyone who was that girl.
For everyone who knew that girl.
For everyone who wondered who that girl was.

Kerry Cohen is eleven years old when she recognizes the power of her body in the leer of a grown man. Her parents are recently divorced and it doesn’t take long before their lassitude and Kerry’s desire to stand out—to be memorable in some way—combine to lead her down a path she knows she shouldn’t take. Kerry wanted attention. She wanted love. But not really understanding what love was, not really knowing how to get it, she reached for sex instead.

Loose Girl is Kerry Cohen’s captivating memoir about her descent into promiscuity and how she gradually found her way toward real intimacy. The story of addiction—not just to sex, but to male attention—Loose Girl is also the story of a young girl who came to believe that boys and men could give her life meaning. It didn’t matter who he was. It was their movement that mattered, their being together. And for a while, that was enough.

From the early rush of exploration to the day she learned to quiet the desperation and allow herself to love and be loved, Kerry’s story is never less than riveting. In rich and immediate detail, Loose Girl re-creates what it feels like to be in that desperate moment, when a girl tries to control a boy by handing over her body, when the touch of that boy seems to offer proof of something, but ultimately delivers little more than emptiness.

Kerry Cohen’s journey from that hopeless place to her current confident and fulfilled existence is a cautionary tale and a revelation for girls young and old. The unforgettable memoir of one young woman who desperately wanted to matter, Loose Girl will speak to countless others with its compassion, understanding, and love.

Loose Girl by Kerry Cohen is a stumbling trip down memory lane for this author/psychotherapist.  Kerry was a girl, like myself and millions of others, who grew up in the pop culture world that depicts sexual behavior as love which lends to confusing thoughts and misdirected actions that lead to more trouble. 

Am I good enough?  Everything I do is not for me but for that boy or that friend who’s opinion means more than anything.  Those are the thoughts that are constantly tormenting Kerry starting at a terribly young age (eleven) and make her teen years and early adult life a heart wrenching, abyss filling period, full of the same mistakes made time after time. 

Sex, looks, how we act for the opposite sex and what he thinks about me are the common themes in Loose Girl.  Kerry grew up in a broken family.  The victim of a mother who left the family she doesn’t really want to follow her dreams and the daughter of a father who reluctantly takes Kerry and her older sister Tyler in but doesn’t quite grasp the sense of what his responsibilities require of him.  Buying the girls love and (he thinks) respect with clothes, expensive private schools and a rule-less home life leads to a life that any teenager thinks is the best but underneath it all is the worst thing for her development. 

Loose Girl was a tough read for the most part.  Some parts of Kerry’s story echoed my own “dating years” but the drugs, drinking and constant repetitive behavior became tedious at times.  The point of the problem carried across to me, the reader, very well and was extremely effective though.  I found myself very frustrated with Kerry and the same “mistakes” she made over and over again but I understand that that was and is the “illness” she deals with and dealt with while growing up without even being aware of it.  Sleeping with a guy on the first date or just for the sake of a one night stand isn’t the best thing to do and usually doesn’t get one anywhere one wants to go in the end. 

I think that some young girls might benefit from reading Loose Girl if it’s taken as a cautionary tale but after much editing.  Drugs and alcohol play a significant role in Kerry’s misadventures.  Actually, maybe it doesn’t need editing for the young reader.  Maybe it could shed a long lasting light on what can happen if you don’t put yourself first in your life and succumb to peer pressures and the role society tries to place the young and influential female in. 

{Rating 3.5 out of 5}

Book Review ~ The Summer of Naked Swim Parties by Jessica Anya Blau

Summary: The Summer of Naked Swim Parties ~ Fourteen-year-old Jamie will never forget the summer of 1976.  It’s the summer when she has her first boyfriend, cute surfer Flip Jenkins; it’s the summer when her two best friends get serious about sex, cigarettes, and tanning; it’s the summer when her parents throw, yes, naked swim parties, leaving Jamie flushed with embarrassment.  And it’s the summer that forever changes the way Jamie sees the things that matter: family, friendship, love and herself.

The Summer of Naked Swim Parties by Jessica Anya Blau is a time capsule from the summer of 1976, our country’s bicentennial year.  So many parts of this book are familiar yet alien to me.  Some a reflection of my life as a fourteen year old in 1989 but for the most part a fun read with subtle reminders of what being a teenager is all about. 

Daughter of semi-nudist, pot-smoking, party hosting, over-involved parents, Jamie finds being fourteen challenging.  She is the youngest of two daughters and though Rene and Jamie are no longer close, with different and conflicting views on life, they were before the hormonal teen years hit.  Rene goes off to “Outward Bound” summer camp and Jamie begins her very educational summer at home.   

Jamie’s summer schedule consists of waking, watching her topless mother bounce around the kitchen while making breakfast and spending her afternoons and evenings hanging out with her two best girlfriends.  The three of them soon begin having adventures with town boys and the dramas that come with lust/love, sex, drugs and drinking take over. 

Jamie learns about sex, already knows about pot, thanks to her parents but she’s not really interested.  She learns more about beer, discovers that just because they hang out with you it doesn’t mean that your friends will have your back forever.

One of my favorite parts in The Summer of Naked Swim Parties is when Jamie looses her virginity to her boyfriend Flip.  Though the location is a romantic, secluded beach spot with the boyfriend she knows every girl at school wants, things don’t always go as planned.  When does it really?

Blau’s dialogue flows smoothly and is clever, funny and quick.  My favorite character has to be Janie’s mother, Betty.  She is beautiful, fun loving, cooks, the glue that holds the family together and loves to make everyone happy as well as keep a high level of happiness in her life.  She concerns herself with Jamie’s newly discovered sexuality that is outed by a strange house guest.  She just wants her daughter to experience the pleasures she is entitled to, to Jamie’s horror.  Who really wants to talk about masturbation with their mom anyway?  Who’s mom actually tried to give tips on the subject? 

After a tragic accident plaques the house’s energy, Betty brings in an exorcist, the family visits a crazy family therapy session.  Then so-called friends come out of the woodwork when a (I believe) fictionalized Jane Fonda and her Senate-running husband are thrown a fund-raising party that becomes a bore-fest because there aren’t jiggling breasts and “wagging penises” diving into the pool or jumping on the trampoline in the back yard. 

Antagonists appear in many forms throughout The Summer of Naked Swim Parties.  Be it a penis, a mooching “Native American”, a disgruntled sister or a box of Nutter Butter cookies disguised as a friend, Jamie is constantly at battle with herself and her surroundings.  What fourteen year-old girl isn’t?  The Summer of Naked Swim Parties is a great book taking us back to our own summers when we were teenagers and had questions and worries about everything.  Some things never change though.  I’m still a worrier, still love to have fun and still love to make out.

{Rating ~ 4 out of 5}

Be sure to check out Jessica Anya Blau’s guest post titled “Motherhood and Celebrity Penises” HERE.

The Summer of Naked Swim Parties book trailer:

Book Review & Book Club Discussion ~ The Great Man by Kate Christensen

The Great Man by the Pen/Faulkner Award Winning author Kate Christensen was the July/August Planet Books reading club selection.  It is the story of one man, deceased, and the amazing, complicated and loving women he surrounded himself with in life.  Oscar Feldman was a “renowned figurative painter” who led multiple lives.  One as a husband, another as a lover and a third as the famous painter who seduced his models with his hands and his paint brush. 

“Oscar, Oscar, Oscar,” said Maxine.  “Look at us, four smart old bags with plenty to think about, fixated on my putz of a brother, who’s been dead for five years and wasn’t especially nice to any of us.”

At first glance I wasn’t really enjoying this book but once I got to know the women in Oscar’s life, I was intrigued by the idea of forgiveness and tolerance that his wife, lover and even sister had for this unlikeable man who was nothing but a selfish painter who bucked the system on all levels.  As I finally got over the hump and got into the book, I discovered that the characters where written so well that I felt they may be real people and that this was actually a biography of Oscar Feldman but in reality it is the event of two biographies being written about the painter that brings Abigail (wife), Teddy (the mistress), Lila (Teddy’s best friend),  Maxine (sister), and numerous secondary characters together.  In their golden years, these women dredge up the past as they tell not one but two individual biographers about their lives with Oscar.  They discuss his work and I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed the detailed descriptions of his approach to painting and the paintings themselves. 

We meet Teddy first.  The woman who Oscar carried on a forty plus year affair with that produced twin daughters.  She at first is rough around the edges but once I got past some personal dislike for the writing style in the book, I was able to submerge myself into the New York City boroughs where the characters live and listen to their stories.  At one point I felt that I related to Teddy the most out of all the female characters Christensen created.  She is strong but was in total love with Oscar and supported him the best she could though she was never able to do so as the official women in Oscar’s life.  Since Oscar’s death five years before this book begins, Teddy has moved from the large house she shared with Oscar and raised their daughters in to a small apartment that with time got away from her.  Things piled up and the idea of taking care of business overwhelms in her old age.  Two biographers have started calling to do research on the famous portrait artist, Oscar Feldman and Teddy finds herself entertaining both men over lunches at her residence and telling stories of life with Oscar, on the inside and on the outside. 

The same goes for Maxine Fledman, Oscar’s sister and a successful painter in her own right but part of the abstract art world.  She is a bitter old lesbian with many regrets and leftover feelings for two women in her life.  Her ex-lover from thirty years ago and her present day assistant.  Christensen wrote all the characters very well but Maxine was especially memorable.  A perfectly described lesbian, full of masculinity and lust.  Maxine was a tough woman with an even tougher personality that hid the tenderness and vulnerability at her core.  The relationships she has with Teddy and Oscar’s widow, Abigail are very different.  Maxine never cared for Teddy and always looked down on her for accepting the role of Oscar’s mistress.  She doesn’t acknowledge Teddy and Oscar’s twin daughters, her nieces, but does steal quick glances of Ruby who happens to take her dog to the same dog park that Maxine frequents with her faithful companion, Frago. 

Abigail was Oscar’s life long best friend and wife who cared for their autistic son Ethan.  The relationship between mother and son drove Oscar to jealousy because it was Abigail’s attention he desired so to spite Ethan he would just ignore the boy when he actually spent time with his first family.  Abigail is a lovely but timid character.  At first I didn’t think much of her myself but I soon realized that she was able to tolerate the situation that had entered her life instead of interrupt the smooth waters that had become her life. 

I asked my friend Nicole what her favorite points of the book were and I have to agree with what she said.  “I thought it was neat to get each woman’s perspective and that they were told as parts of the book.  It was the first time I read the first person perspective from such an older character and I felt that Kate Christensen did a really wonderful job with this book.  Also, I thought it was interesting that after hearing the story being told through Teddy, Maxine and then Teddy’s eyes to end the book from the perspective of a complete outsider looking in and observing Oscar’s women.  Henry, one of the two biographers who began to suffer form the same weaknesses that plagued the ‘great man’ himself.  One last thing I really enjoyed about The Great Man was how Christensen compared her analysis between cooking and painting.”  (You can listen to an interview with Kate Christensen on NPR HERE.  She shares the fact that she actually tried the recipes she described in her book and that they were pretty good.)

As the story moves along the interviews between biographers and women creates a fear in Maxine that a huge secret may be unveiled.  It is a major twist and with it the book took off and I finished it rather quickly.  The Great Man surprised me after all and I enjoyed it after all.  It gave great insight into the world of painters and the stresses they face in their line of work.  Insecurities that plague them just like any professional. 

What did you think of the book?  Were you able to enjoy it?  Which woman was your favorite, least favorite?

Sunday Salon ~ August 17th, 2008

How did I get here already!  It just seems like I was posting a Sunday Salon two days ago, not seven!  I’ve been a reading fool this past week.  I read I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone by Stephanie Kuehnert and I absolutely loved it.  You can check out my review HERE.  I am also running a giveaway contest for two signed copies of Anisha Lakhani’s debut novel, Schooled, until tonight, Sunday August 17th at Midnight EDT.  You can check it out and enter HERE.  I will be using Random.org to select the two winners and Anisha will be personalizing them as well as mailing them.

Planet Books has also been graced with guest posts from two authors this week.  Marcus Sakey’s new novel, Good People, just came out in stores on Thursday, August 14th and he stopped by to talk about his book and what he’s reading this summer.  You can check it out HERE.  Also, The Summer of Naked Swim Parties author, Jessica Anya Blea wrote a laugh-out-loud guest post for Planet Books.  You can read it HERE.   

As you may have noticed this month is flying by.  Hell, the summer must not have happened because I can’t believe it’s almost over!  How many of you are taking part in Planet Books’ July/August book club and reading The Great Man by Kate Christensen?  Well, I’ve finally gotten around to picking it up and to tell you the truth, it isn’t grabbing my attention like I hoped it would?  Have you finished it yet?  What did you think or what do you you think so far if you are reading it last minute too?  I will continue to try to get into The Great Man but I am curious if I’m the only one struggling with this book?

If you aren’t reading The Great Man, then what are you reading today?  Anything good?  Anything I should avoid?  Please let me know.  I love being nosey and checking out what y’all are reading!

Book Review ~ I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone by Stephanie Kuehnert

Summary ~ “The Clash.  Social Distortion.  Dead Kennedy’s.  Patti Smith.  The Ramones.  Punk rock is in Emily Black’s blood.  Her mother, Louisa, hit the road to follow the incendiary music scene when Emily was four months old and never came back. 

Now Emily’s all grown up with a punk band of her own, determined to find the tune that will bring her mother home.  Because if Louisa really is following the music, shouldn’t it lead her right back to Emily?”

 

Stephanie Kuehnert’s I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone was able to do what no other novel has done for me.  It took me to a place in my memory that I haven’t visited in a very long time.  The story is set in the musically historical time of the early to mid 90’s (including flashbacks to the 70’s and 80’s) and the music scene that erupted when Punk fell and Grunge raised it’s mighty guitar pick and rocked the country.  Unlike the main character, Emily Black, I was not a big fan of Punk music but when Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog (A hybrid band mixing Soundgarden and Pearl Jam members for a memorable album), Stone Temple Pilots and Alice In Chains swept the airwaves like a wild fire, not to be contained, I knew I would never be the same.

Emily Black grew up in Carlisle, Wisconsin.  A small, gossip filled town that is the last place this spirited teen wants to be.  Just like her mother before her, she longs for the open road that Rock ‘n Roll seductively offers.  Her mother left Emily and her devoted (best written father in a long while) and music loving dad to “follow the music” when Emily was just four months old.  This selfish act will haunt Emily for the rest of her life but it’s what Emily does with her life that makes for entertaining, moving and music filled reading.  Yes, I could hear the music as I read Kuehnert’s vivid descriptions of writing music and playing for pulsing, sweaty crowds in bars and clubs all over the country.  I found that listening to Nirvana, the Singles soundtrack, Pearl Jam’s Surfer Eddie Live album and one of my personal favorites, NIN (Nine Inch Nails) Pretty Hate Machine was imperative background music to read I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone by. 

Though some flashbacks left me confused about where in Emily’s life I was, Kuehnert takes such care with character and plot development that it wasn’t too distracting.  Emily’s relationship with her father and her best friend Regan made for emotional reading and there were numerous points throughout the book when I had to wipe away my tears in order to see the pages.  The relationship between Emily and her best friend, Regan, was so realistic and true that at times I was brought back to the time between 1992 and 1995 and my best friend, Ellen (names were changed to protect the real person).  Ellen had a huge influence on my life musically.  She was music.  Her love of Rock ‘n’ Roll, musicians, lyrics and all the back stories that make up the gaps between songs on CD’s helped me develop my love and knowledge of music.  Ellen’s Honda Prelude was named Eddie after Eddie Vedder and her black dog was named Zeppelin.  We were together when we learned of Kurt Cobain’s suicide and we spent endless hours listening to music, discussing it, singing and soaking it in.  Emily is faced with a very scary situation regarding Regan’s health in I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone which reminded me of Ellen’s 19th birthday when she tried to kill herself.  Thank God she wasn’t successful.  It was more a plea for help and a cry for attention from her estranged father but it was a heartbreaking and terrifying time for me that I will never forget.  Like Emily, I loved my best friend so much and would have done and did do anything for her.  We have since lost touch but this book has brought back tons of fond memories of endless days spent together listening to music and being each other’s best friend during a strange and exciting time.

Emily and Regan have known each other since birth practically and that is because their mom’s Louisa and Molly were childhood best friends.  Their friendship begins to focus on music and the idea of starting a band when they enter high school.  Emily’s dad has been teaching her how to play the guitar since she was a toddler and she begins to realize that she is a pretty damn good guitarist.  She can also sing and write lyrics so with Regan on drums they just need a bass player.  Regan has been eyeing a boy at school who she knows is a musician and she wants for her boyfriend.  Tom becomes the glue that holds the band together and helps Emily create music and a sound that they find success with.  Kuehnert creates a world of underground music and the elements of a band that is believable, gritty and wonderful.  I managed a Ska band in college, just when the Punk Ska movement was getting huge attention in 1995-1996 and the sacrifices and rehearsal hours put into a band are monumental.  Yet another time in my life that this book brought to the fore front of my memory. 

The band, She Laughs, finds different levels of success but Emily”s mother always haunts her and she feels like everything she does is because of Louisa.  I liked the way that Emily’s life was a reflection at times of her mother’s life.  Sometimes the apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree even when the daughter never knew her mother personally but only through stories, few pictures and the albums she had left behind all those years ago.

Emily’s story line is like the versus of a song and her mother’s, Louisa, story is the chorus, the backbone of the book that leads all other characters down the road of fate. I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone reads like a great album plays.  Full of songs that need each other to create an amazing effect on the whole.  Showing a progression but having a common sound or style like the characters that move through the story. 

I enjoyed the mental journey Kuehnert took me on with her debut novel and I look forward to seeing what she has up her sleeve for us in the future.  You can check out Stephanie’s web site HEREand her MySpace page HERE

{Rating ~ 4 out of 5}