Monday, June 27, 2011

Summer Romance

Summer… the time for fun, sun, and also the time for romance.  Now that summer is officially here, it is the perfect time to gently laze around in a hammock under the shade from a huge tree or relax in a lounge chair down at the beach.  A summer romance book is the perfect complement to either scenario; fiction romance is that soft breeze that blows on a hot summer day.  If you are in the mood for romance, try one of these wonderful summer reads.

One of the best “what if” romances is Jude Deveraux’s SummerhouseThree women who met for one day on their 21st birthday are reunited for a week’s vacation in Maine for their 40th birthday.  At 21, they were filled will hopes, dreams, and ambitions.  Life has not worked out exactly as they had planned.  Leslie, who dreamed of dancing on Broadway, is now a suburban housewife with 2 children who take her for granted and a husband who is having an affair with his secretary.  Ellie, who wanted to set the world on fire with her art, is now a famous novelist but has just been through a nasty divorce.   Madison, who dreamed of being a model, is now an embittered, thin, ugly woman and has also lived through a horrible marriage.  All three are offered the chance to relive three weeks of their lives.  At the end of those three weeks, they can choose the life they have now or the one they would have had if they had made different choices.  What three weeks would you relive, and what choice would you make?

The new novel Summer Rental by Mary Kay Andrews  is a good fun, light hearted, summer read.  It actually starts on the same premise as the book before.  Three women go on vacation to sort out their lives.  However, the tone in this book is much lighter with laugh out loud moments.  Ellie has just been downsized (laid off, fired) from her job at the bank.  She plans (and over plans) this trip with her friends; she keeps bugging the landlord of the rental with requests, questions, and demands.  Her friends Julie and Dorie arrive.  Julie is trying to decide whether to marry to her lover of many years.  Dorie has secrets and troubles of her own.  Enter Ty Bazemore (the secret owner of the rental) who lives above the garage; the house is about to go into foreclosure if he does not come up with money quick.  Yes, it’s predictable, but it’s also a lot of fun.

Another good romance is Sweet Hush by Georgia author Deborah Smith. Any book that starts with a rotten apple being thrown at a fictitious First Lady is bound to be fun.  Hush McGillen, widow and single mother, runs a successful apple business in the mountains of North Georgia.  Her Harvard attending son upsets the apple cart when he elopes with the daughter of President of the United States and takes her home to escape the First Lady’s wrath.  The President sends his “killer” nephew Nicholas Jacobek to “take care” of the situation.   Full of southern charm and the small town way of life, this romance proves that good Southern values can beat Yankee politics anytime; bless their hearts.

Sometimes a good book will touch your heart and sear your soul.  Get out your hankies for debut Georgia author Jeffrey Stepakoff’s Fireworks over Toccoa.   The novel begins with the drought of 2007.  Lakes dried up and parts of Georgia were exposed that had been covered for fifty years.  Two boys racing their bikes across a dried up lake bed near Toccoa, Georgia found something lost since 1945.  In 1945, Toccoa is preparing to welcome home the soldiers with a fireworks display like no other.  They hire Jack Russo, a troubled WWII vet, to create the fireworks.  Lily Davis is preparing for her husband’s return from WWII.  She married him only a week before he shipped out; though she has had occasional letters, she is not sure she still loves him.  A chance encounter between Jack and Lily in a star-lit field challenge all they believe about love, honor and fidelity.  Does love really conquer all, including honor?  What if you meet your soul mate too late?
Other Recommended Titles:

Monday, June 20, 2011

Books with a Bite

Vampires have always been intriguing literary characters. The recent popularity of the Twilight Series is a prime example. Some avid readers have said that although they enjoyed the Twilight series, they want something more. Either they want to go back to the beginning of the vampire legends or they want a new spin on the classic tale. There is no shortage of stories featuring vampires. Whether they are sinister and repulsive, or seductive and beguiling, they are always fascinating.
The first and most recent title takes place in modern times, but reaches into the past as well. A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness.   Dr. Diana Bishop stumbles upon a powerful book during her research. Unbeknownst to her, this discovery catches the interest of a variety of creatures. Vampires, witches and daemons all have a sudden interest in Diana, who although born into a powerful family of witches, has refused to use her powerful magic. One of the most intriguing characters who Diana meets is a geneticist and ancient vampire named Matthew Clairmont. Although wary of him initially, Diana soon develops a bond with Matthew, who becomes her protector and partner.  They both face danger from daemons, vampires and witches who will all stop at nothing to find the secrets in the ancient book.
A Discovery of Witches stands out from other vampire stories due to the skill of Deborah Harkness, the author. Harkness is a professor of history at the University of Southern California. She uses her extensive knowledge of history and her skill as a writer to craft compelling characters. This story has elements of fantasy, mystery, romance and the occult.
The second title is The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova.  Much like A Discovery of Witches, the story begins with the discovery of a mysterious book. However, this story is based on the original character of Dracula. A teenage girl discovers a book in her father’s library. The book is blank except for a dragon illustration on the front and the word “Drakula”. The book contains several letters addressed to, “My dear and unfortunate successor.” The events in the novel include different continents, time frames and characters. All these elements slowly lead the main character (as well as the reader) to Dracula (or Vlad the Impaler).

The novel is based loosely on the classic Dracula, by Bram Stoker. It is Kostova’s debut novel, which she worked on for 10 years. The Historian is a lavish and detailed story, and it’s a must read for fans of Stoker’s Dracula and other vampire tales.
The third title is Renfield: Slave of Dracula by Barbara Hambly. The book is based on the classic Dracula by Bram Stoker, with Renfield as the major character.  Dracula’s demented servant, R. M. Renfield, is confined in Rushbrook mental asylum. His insane ramblings and bizarre habit of capturing and eating various insects, in his mind, make him grow stronger.  His story takes shape as he senses the approach of his master, Dracula. Much of the story is told in the form of journal entries and letters from Renfield to his beloved wife, Catherine, and daughter, Vixie.
     Barbara Hambly creates a fascinating backstory for Renfield that makes his character much more complex. She is able to skillfully bring Stoker’s more minor characters to life while also giving greater depth to major characters, such as Van Helsing, Jonathan and Mina Harker. Most importantly, the tale of Dracula is told by the tortured Renfield, whose divided loyalty to his Master and his family slowly tears him apart. This book is perhaps my favorite of the three because I always finish reading a novel and wonder, “What happened to the other characters in the story?” The novel, Renfield, answers that question.

Recommended Titles:
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Twilight by Stephanie Meyer
Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice
Dracula in Love by Karen Essex

Monday, June 13, 2011

A Taste of India

Years ago the novel, The God of Small Things by Arundhi Roy was selected for the library’s monthly Book Chat. I was entranced by the luscious play of language in describing this foreign landscape, culture, and method of storytelling. While the plot weaves between time and tales, the vividly descriptive words are what I remember the most and what led me to read more novels from Indian, and Indian-American, authors.

In The God of Small Things, fraternal twins Esthappen and Rahel learn that “Things Can Change in a Day” when their English cousin, Sophie Mol, and her mother, Margaret Kochamma, arrive in Ayemenem on a Christmas visit. Lives are twisted into new, ugly shapes and some are lost forever. "They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much. "

Thrity Umrigar poignantly blends the life stories of two women of modern India in a demonstration of how intricately connected the daily lives of the rich and poor are while remaining so far apart in The Space Between Us. Sera Dubash is an upper-middle class housewife who hides the truth of her abusive household from those closest to her. Bhima has served the Dubash household for over 20 years and is an illiterate gran-mother living in the slums of Bombay with bright grand-daughter who is attending college when she becomes pregnant. Sera’s young, married daughter is pregnant as well. Umbriger reveals the privileges of the rich as they contrast with the poverty, neglect, and hopelessness of the poor. Both women share their lives daily, yet live by vastly opposing rules and expectations. “But after all the years of working in Seraba’s home, Bhima has no idea what she thinks, she realizes. And why should you? She chastises herself. You an ignorant, uninformed woman , and Serabai, educated and foreign-traveled.”

A review of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Sister of My Heart remarks that “Divakaruni’s talent and originality lie in her ability to discern [the] basic emotional motifs beneath the flashy “exotica’ of Indian, and American, lifestyles. She finds the real points of departure between the two cultures and, in putting her finger exactly there, activates the universal.” I found this to be true in this story of two cousins born on the same day to mothers who are widowed on the day of their daughters’ births. Sudha, the poor relation, is kind and beautiful while Anju Chatterlee is brilliant and defiant. The two have an inseparable bond which is tested by the revelation of a dark family secret and the arranged marriages which halts plans for college and independence. Anju leaves for America with her new husband while Sudha moves in with her husband and a dominating mother-in-law. Both women experience love, loss, and friendship as they yearn for independence.

Jhumpa Lahiri recently joined my list of favorite authors. Her short stories and novel examine the difficulties, and privileges, of living between two conflicting cultures with distinct religious, social, and ideological differences. Lahiri explores the difficulties of cultural assimilation for the new Indian immigrants as well as the cultural conflict experienced by their American born children.

In The Namesake, Lahiri moves between the world of India and America as she tells the story of the Ganguli’s, a young Bengali couple who move to Boston. At the birth of their first child, the Ganguli’s are forced to choose a name for their son in order to leave the hospital. Unlike Indian culture where a baby is given a good name by an elder and a pet name by the family, American children are given a legal name at the time of birth. The good name has not arrived from India in times so the Ganguli’s name their son Gogol after Ashoke’s favorite author and in honor of the book which once saved his live; Gogol’s pet name is now his legal name. Gogol stumbles along the first-generation path with conflicting loyalties, emotional family clashes, and a series of complicated love affairs. Lahiri’s penetrating insight reveals the means by which we slowly, often painfully, come to know ourselves.

Always a fan of dark humor, I eagerly read The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. The White Tiger is the name our hero gives to himself as Balram Halwai spends 7 nights writing a response to a statement he heard on the radio that the premier of China is on a mission to know the truth about Bangalore. Balram is an expert on the truth of the harsh realities and hidden cruelties of the “new India.” In the course of his narrative, Balfour justifies his transformation from an honest, hardworking boy from “the Darkness” of rural India to a cold blooded murderer and entrepreneur. "But isn't it likely that everyone in this world...has killed someone or other on their way to the top?...All I wanted was a chance to be a man--and for that, one murder is enough."

From the glamour of Bollywood to the grime of Slumdog Millionaire, make India a destination in your summer reading.

Recommended Reading:
Interpreter of Maladies – Jhumpa Lahiri
Unaccustomed Earth – Jhumpa Lahiri
Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
The Death of Vishnu – Manil Suri
The Inheritance of Loss – Kiran Desai
Madras on Rainy Days – Samina Ali
Savoring India: Recipes and Reflections on Indian Cooking – Julie Sahni
My Bombay Kitchen: Traditional and Parsi Home Cooking – Noloufer I. King

Monday, June 6, 2011

Destination: A New State of Mind

To most library lovers, picking up a good book is like taking a mini vacation.   Given the seemingly rare time to freely do as we please – the typical holiday, the weekend, or the few precious minutes amid our hectic days and nights  -  we hungry bookworms delve into our favorite reading material with gusto, hoping to be transported away, if only momentarily, to the rich world of our unique interests and imaginings.   The concepts of book and break are almost one and the same.  Whether cruising the waters of the Pacific or lounging in the backyard lawn chair, by bringing our books along, we double our experience; by reading, we take a vacation within a vacation.  And the rewards for picking up that book are matchless.

For this book junkie, the measure of a good book (and a good vacation for that matter), depends less upon the setting and time, and more upon the state of mind in which it places me during and after the turning of pages.  The following righteous reads, both fiction and nonfiction, transcend time and place, and carry my hurried, anxious mind steadily and mercifully to a more relaxed, open, and peaceful point of understanding within myself.  As I emerge from their pages, I find I have changed or grown as a person in a way, and it is certainly most fulfilling. 

I often reach for "Iron John: A Book About Men" by the poet and activist Robert Bly.  Based on the Grimm brother’s fairy tale by the same name, Iron John is a hearty exploration of the development and meaning of manhood in contemporary American society.  According to the Grimm’s tale, something strange has been happening around a remote pond in the forest near the King’s Castle – when people go there, they don’t come back.  One day a young boy asks the King if he can help, and upon arriving at the place, what he finds at the bottom of the pond, oddly enough, is a large man covered with hair the “color of rusty iron” from head to toe.  According to the author, this mysterious man represents the true, positive masculine psyche in every man.  Mr. Bly examines both boy and hairy “wild man,” likening their relationship to an initiation into manhood, given from father to son.  The exceptional splendor of the book is evident in the author’s personal poetry interspersed throughout, powerful poems that tap into the ancient, almost spiritual roots of the “man” inside all males.  All in all, this is a healing, uplifting read.

Another book that challenges my perspective and shapes my mind in a beneficial way is "Steps on the Path to Enlightenment" by the Buddhist monk and scholar Geshe Lhundub Sopa.  The word “Geshe” refers to one of the highest academic degrees in Tibetan Buddhism and is roughly equivalent to a doctorate degree in the western world.  Geshe Sopa’s brilliant book is an exposition of a 14th century text on Buddhist philosophy, "The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment" by Je Tsongkhapa.  In the foreword to Sopa’s book, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, himself the highest authority on Buddhist thought today, writes that the primary goal of these writings is “to discipline and transform the mind.”  What I enjoy about this book is both the clear, systematic presentation of the Buddhist path and the authoritative nature of both the author and the text.  Geshe Sopa was one of the Dalai Lama’s personal debate partners in their lengthy education as monks, and the text itself is still prominently used in Tibetan Buddhist training today, not only for monks and nuns, but for lay people as well.

My favorite book to date, one that strangely settles my mind instantly and peacefully upon reading only a few lines, is John Steinbeck’s novella, "The Pearl."  Based on a Mexican folk tale, it is the story of pearl fisherman, Kino, his loving wife Juana, and their infant boy, Coyotito.   Kino and his family lead a meager life on the colorful shores of the Gulf.  One morning, Coyotito is bitten by a scorpion and falls deathly ill.  Kino must quickly find payment for medical treatment for his only child, and so he dives deep into the dark ocean waters and, fatefully, unearths an exceptionally large pearl, “perfect as the moon,” one that he is certain will pay for help for his sickly son and fulfill his dreams of a better life for his modest family.  But in this deceptively simple story, things aren’t always what they seem.  What follows is a parable rich in meaning and delivered with Steinbeck’s keen perception into the intricacies of human nature.  The story’s pacing and the author’s descriptive language are fresh, alive, and almost meditative, beckoning the reader to heed the life lessons contained within.  As Mr. Steinbeck writes in the opening lines, “If this story is a parable, perhaps everyone takes his own meaning from it and reads his own life into it.  In any case, they say in the town that…”

Other recommended reading: