Cell: a novel by Stephen King

Find in catalogI came across this book after having reread Orwell’s 1984, and having read for the first time Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake trilogy this year.  I was looking for other novels dealing with (post)apocalyptic realities in a realistic/present way.  Although not nearly the same caliber of writing nor the same degree of societal critique, Cell is page-turner of a novel that explores the notion of an apocalypse in relation to everyday, modern technology.  Like King’s other books, the female characters are reduced to types and play secondary roles, and a palpable sexism is present throughout the work.  Those issues aside, however, I would recommend _Cell_ if you are looking for an engaging but not intellectually challenging read–for a long flight, a vacation, a rainy weekend.  I could very much imagine this novel being made into a film.  Like Mr. Mercedes, it seems like King writes his books already anticipating their adaptation into film, a characteristic which both increases popular interest in his works but also makes the endings a little too neatly wrapped up, in my opinion.  Still, I enjoyed Cell from start to finish, and it does dialogue with other apocalyptic literature in interesting ways.

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Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

Find in catalogI hadn’t read a Stephen King novel since I was a teenager and came across my dad’s book collection in the den.  I had nightmares for weeks after reading _Pet Sematary_ at the age of 9 or 10, and read only two or three other King novels before moving onto other genres. I came across Mr. Mercedes on the Lucky Day shelf (one of my favorite features of the Eugene Public Library!).  I checked it out on a whim, started it that day, and couldn’t put it down until I’d finished it a few days later.  It’s not great literature by any means, but it’s gripping, visually graphic, and compels you to read more.

In particular, I appreciated the way King writes from multiple perspectives, in this case from both victims/heroes and victimizers/anti-heroes.  After finishing Mr. Mercedes, I immediately checked out and read Cell, another of his more recent novels, which I also enjoyed!

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi

Find in catalogBeautifully written and compelling story about a young girl under Taliban rule in Afghanistan who lives as a bacha posh – dressed and named as a boy in a family of girls – following her into adulthood as a woman with no rights, subject to arranged marriage at 13, abuse and denial of education or independence. Paralleling her story is the story of her ancestor subject to many of the same abuses and her long struggle to triumph over it all.  In the end our heroine also triumphs, at great cost. A view into an oppressive culture that ultimately fails in its attempt to dehumanize women who defy the odds to remain strong of mind and heart. Highly recommended.

Bingo Palace by Louise Erdrich

Bingo PalaceThis is much more meaningful when you have read the earlier books about this group of interconnected Indian families. In this book we learn that Lipsha, the failure, the boy of no character, is driven by love for Shawnee Ray, and that’s the cord that holds this story together. Even more than with Lipsha’s love for Shawnee Ray I grew to sympathize with his ties to his escape-artist father, Gerry. I found too many scenes contrived, not deriving from feeling, so I did not like this book as well as the earlier ones, but I think if you’ve read those it’s worthwhile to see how the characters and their relationships have developed. One of the earlier books showed a family tree of the characters and I think that would have helped.

Reviewed by Sara

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant FriendBeautifully written and translated, this book reminded me of a good French film, deep on relationships and atmosphere and saturated with warmth and aliveness. Ferrante writes so sensually that I felt enveloped by the sounds, sights, and smells of Naples in the 1950s.

This story of the complex relationship between two girls, Elena and Lila, is told exclusively through Elena’s vivid memories of their early years together, from 6 to 16. The story ranges from tenements to shops and schools, from dolls to boys, and introduces a wide cast of characters from nine of the families in their poor neighborhood. In addition, it includes teachers, one of whom effectively challenges the mores of the time and place regarding education for girls. Fortunately, if you get lost as you read, as I sometimes did, there is an index of characters and their occupations to help you orient yourself.

Interestingly, Ferrante is thought to be a pseudonym for a male writer. I believe at least that the author’s name is a pseudonym. When you read the book, you will see that the author begins with a clever prologue, when Elena and Lila are 66. The prologue develops Elena’s motivation for writing this book. How odd it seems that a character with the same first name as the author is writing the book!

At the end of the book I felt a sense of pressure, as if I had been in a hermetically sealed environment. I think it was sealed by the denseness of the sensual experiences, coming one right after the other, by the singular point of view, and by the shrewd prologue, as if there is no author, only Elena telling us her story.

I will read this book a second time soon. And I look forward to the next installment in what is a promised trilogy.

Reviewed by Lily

The Professional by Robert Parker

Find in catalogThe Professional is one of the “Spenser” series of detective stories, but after having read about 10, this is not one I would recommend. The familiar wit, abundant self confidence of Spenser, and his delicious sounding meals are still components of the story, but the plot seems tedious and the book too long.  The plot revolves around a playboy who blackmails the women he seduces, and 4 women in particular who jointly hire Spenser to “make him stop” before their marriages to rich husbands are ruined!  Sounds cute, but the resolution was a bit dreary, despite the other things about Spenser stories that I usually do enjoy, such as the thoughtful and sexy repartee’ between the hardboiled detective and his psychologist girlfriend. This is a later one in the series so the two are fully committed and there is none of the tension of unrequited love in this one. I really like the Spenser, Hawk, and Susan characters, but I would rather recommend others in the series, such as Catskill Eagle or God Bless the Child.

Reviewed by Lola

Silver Sparrow: a novel by Tayari Jones

Set in black, middle class Atlanta in the 1980s, this book opens with the words, “My father, James Witherspoon is a bigamist. He was already married ten years when he first clamped eyes on my mother.”

James’ secret daughter, Dana, speaks these lines and tells her story first. When she has finished her narrative, Chaurisse, the daughter that James claims publicly, picks it up. They each describe how James’ relationships with their mothers evolved and how they themselves managed their beauty and sexuality as they grew up.

The central action of the novel pivots on the fact that Dana and her mother know about the Witherspoons, but Chaurisse and her mother are ignorant of the second family.

The core dilemma in the book, beautifully and poignantly described through the actions and thoughts of the flawed, human characters, is the longing for connection. Jones lovingly brings this longing alive, and she doesn’t flinch from making the fragility of connection equally clear.

Highly recommended.
 
For writers: Tayari Jones is doing a writing challenge during the month of August. See her blog at www.tayarijones.com

Reviewed by Lily

When the Killing’s Done by T. Coraghessan Boyle

Wildlife biologist Alma Takesue and animal rights activist Dave La Joy are fighting over what species should be allowed on Anacapa Island, off the California coast. Boyle excels in letting us experience the struggle of humans against nature, as  his characters take small boats across a stormy channel and fight their way across steep, chaparral-covered slopes deluged by a fierce rainstorm.

The book also carries a strong environmental theme and raises questions about the cost of protecting threatened species. The main characters are animated not by greed but by idealism and strong personal motives, making their conflict more intense. The weakness in the book is that while Alma, Dave, and other characters  are well-developed, the line between good and bad seems rather simplistically drawn.

Reviewed by Sara V.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Complex tale of Walter, Patty, and their family, mid-westerners, in the 1980s. His characters variously love or are unfaithful,  engage in sibling rivalries,  make a buck by cheating the government on a contract, succeed or fail in life’s enterprises. Franzen casts a satiric eye  on many current issues:  environmentalism, business practices, ethics, marriage, friendship.

There are several ironic twists, but I found the amount of  introspection tedious.  I enjoyed Franzen’s earlier “Corrections”  and found it comic, but this did not appeal as much. I’d like to hear from soneone who can show me what I am missing.

Reviewed by Sara

The Spellmans Strike Again by Lisa Lutz

This is the fourth and seemingly final book in Lisa Lutz’s series of humorous mysteries featuring the Spellman family, which begins with The Spellman Files (more info at lisalutz.com/spellman-books). When I finished reading it, I was a little sad that there weren’t any more.

 The series follows Isabel Spellman from her late twenties to her early thirties as she comes to terms with working for her family’s private investigation firm and struggles to build her own life in the midst of that. The books aren’t as serious as that makes them sound, though — there are plenty of laugh-out-loud funny moments as well. Each volume has multiple mysteries going on that are plausibly resolved by the end of the volume. The sleuthing techniques, from the excitement of car chases to the boredom and discomfort of sitting in a parked car for hours on end without bathroom breaks to watch people, are believable.

 Main characters are consistent from book to book, and it’s a pleasure getting to know Isabel. In her carefully set up bad-girl persona, she does things that would be annoying if people you knew in real life were actually doing them in your presence, but the books, more introspective than they appear on the hilarious surface, provide enough of her internal dialogue that what she does makes sense.

Reviewed by Eva