Monday, August 29, 2011

Book Review: Homer & Langley

Homer & Langley (Random House) by E. L. Doctorow is an engaging novel about two brothers, one blind and the other suffering the effects of mustard gas during the Great War.

The narrator of the story, Homer, blind since childhood, develops a highly self-sufficient way of getting around, depending on sounds, smells and the sense of closeness to objects. He is musically gifted and for awhile is the piano accompaniment for silent movies at a local movie theater. His brother Langley goes off to war and the Spanish flu takes first one parent, then the other. Left alone in the Fifth Avenue mansion with no one but servants, Homer manages to settle the estate and awaits his brother’s return.

Langley’s return, however, is filled with tragedy. He’s physically and mentally altered. The mustard gas has left horrific scars and damaged his vocal chords, changing his voice from a clear tenor to a rasping whisper. He’s left with bitterness and distrust toward the government and society.

The Collyer brothers live as recluses in their once grand mansion. Langley becomes obsessed with collecting things–newspapers, cast-off clothes, furniture, old TV’s. The mansion is filled with useless relics. Although the word “hoarder” is never used, that is, indeed what Langley becomes.

Homer at times craves romance, but loyalty to his brother and his own limitations discourage lasting relationships.

The novel covers several decades, and the reader follows society’s changes through the constant barrage of people streaming through the Collyer home: immigrants, prostitutes, gangsters, jazz musicians, hippies–they all become a part of the intricate web that forms the Collyer household.

Homer & Langley is a fascinating story, combining Homer’s insightfulness and blindness with Langley’s eccentric but brilliant idealism. The novel introduces points of view that I’d never considered. It’s beautiful yet haunting characters will stay with me for a long time.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Book Review: Adeline

Adeline (Tate Publishing) by Mary Ann Hayes is a little book with a big message. People of all ages will enjoy this story, but the wisdom and insights of Adeline will especially resonate with readers over forty.

Beautifully told in first person, Adeline observes her world and her precious family through loving eyes, eyes that have seen beauty, laughter and tragedy. Adeline’s story is an inspiring life’s journey, a chronicle of recollections of people and events that have shaped her life.

Adeline has lived her life to the fullest, even when life has been hard to bear. A wise woman who loves her vacation home and the people who fill it, she returns to her beloved lake house for her final journey.

People who love life and who find treasures in nature and in simple pleasures will love Adeline. To learn more about the author, visit Adeline is available at your favorite bookstore and various on-line outlets.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Book Review: Bel Canto

Bel Canto (Harper Perennial) by Ann Patchett held me captive from beginning to end. And being held captive is what this book is all about.

A prestigious party is being held at the home of a Vice President somewhere in South America. The occasion is a birthday party honoring Mr.Kosokawa, a powerful businessman from Japan. The famous opera soprano, Roxane Coss, has enthralled the international guests with her singing. It’s a grand event–until terrorists take the entire party hostage.

From the beginning, the take-over goes awry. The target being sought, the President of the country, isn’t in attendance. This causes great confusion among the three generals leading a gang of gun-wielding youths.

Nothing goes according to plan, but life goes on. From a panicked, life-threatening situation, people fall into a routine. They connect, cooperate, form bonds, friendships, even fall in love.

This is a marvelous, entertaining book, a New York Times Bestseller and winner of the Pen/Faulkner Award. For me, it hit a profound chord. When my husband and I were with the Peace Corps in The Gambia, West Africa, we were “detained” in a single house for 8 days, along with 118 people from many different countries. This book brought back vivid memories of that attempted military coup.

I highly recommend Bel Canto. You’ll find yourself bunking in with the rest of the house guests.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Book Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is a colossal novel in every sense. As a trade paperback, its six hundred fifty-nine pages teem with history many of us never knew existed. A 2001 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is an epic array of fiction woven skillfully with fact.

Sammy Clay’s imagination and enterprising spirit isn’t slowed down by his physical limitations, the effects of childhood polio. But, on his own, he can only dream of ambitions for which most people of the time aren’t even aware, a comic book empire.

Along comes Sammy’s cousin, Josef Kavalier, an escapee from Prague. Joe’s entire focus is to rescue his family from Nazy Germany’s oppression. Not only is Josef a talented former art student, he is a skilled magician and escape artist. The two young men combine their talents, each working toward their individual goals.

Together Sammy and Joe embark on the emerging comic book industry, making a name for themselves, along with the notable Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the writer-artist team that created Superman.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay covers a dozen pre- and post-World War II years. Chabon’s sweeping, intricately researched novel is a captivating read encompassing early comic book years, fantasy, magic, love and war, all richly drawn with believable characters. It’s no wonder this book received the Pulitzer Prize–it’s a triumphant, highly engaging work of fiction.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Book Review: The Color of Water

The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, by James McBride (Riverhead Books) is not a new release. The book club I belong to selected this book, the 10th Anniversary Edition, for discussion.

James McBride’s father died when his mother was pregnant with James. His Jewish mother, the widow of a black man, remarries, also to a black man, a man who accepted and took responsibility for this existing family of nine, which eventually grew to a family of fourteen.

As a young boy, James realizes that he looks different from his mother and questions her whether he is black or white. “You’re a human being,” she answers. “Educate yourself or you’ll be a nobody.” Later, as he attempts to sort out life, he asks his mother, now a Christian, what color God is and is told, “God is the color of water.”

Interspersed with James’ story, are chapters written in his mother’s voice. A rabbi’s daughter born in Poland and raised in the South, she fled to New York to get away from her father’s cruelty and prejudice. She finds kindness and understanding with a black man, a devout Christian.

The Color of Water is a refreshing look at a family of mixed race. It’s a story of a mother who manages to see all twelve of her children graduate from college with advanced degrees. Yet it’s a chaotic family, with mixed messages, financial struggles and confusion, yet strong with love and compassion. The memoir faces racial issues relevant today, but goes beyond race to reach justifiable pride, humor and compassion. It’s a story about what a family can achieve through faith and sheer determination.