West of Sunset by Steward O’Nan

west of sunsetPublished by Viking, January 2015 ***

I was excited by the idea of O’Nan writing about a quintessential American author, but I was disappointed that he chose the most unexciting and depressing period of Fitzgerald’s life. With Zelda shut away in an asylum and their Jazz-age days behind them, Scott is trying to renew his career in Hollywood. He attempts writing for movies, only to get taken off projects and denied credit. Broke and boring, Scott begins an affair with gossip columnist Sheilah and his existence centers around schmoozing studio executives for his next job and staying sober. He occasionally shuttles back east to reunite with Zelda and their daughter, which only reminds him of how depressing his life has become. Besides working sporadically and fighting with Sheilah after drunken relapses, he hobnobs with stars like Humphrey Bogart. There’s plenty of name-dropping and extolling the Hollywood scene, but when war breaks out in Europe, those things become trivial.

While it was a well-written depiction of Fitzgerald’s final years, it just wasn’t a captivating novel. Witnessing Scott’s decline was somewhat tedious. I would have rather read more about the literary scene (although Hemingway does make a cameo) than Hollywood in the late 30’s.

I received a complimentary copy of this book via the Amazon Vine program.

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Best and Worst of 2014

Here it is…

Best 5 Novels:

Best 5 Nonfiction:

Worst 5 Books:

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A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam

a beautiful truthPublished by Soho Press, 2013 ***

This book is not for everyone for several reasons. First, it is very stylized, with a stream of conscious narrative. And that becomes even more cumbersome when it is from the perspective of chimpanzees. Plus dialogue is not distinguished by quotes. Second, it deals with animal testing, and the cruelty that the chimpanzees endure may be disturbing to some readers. Finally, there’s the basic understanding that chimpanzees are wild animals and that keeping them as pets is dangerous. The inherent violence that is a consequence of keeping chimps in a domestic environment is presented in a brutal way.

Judy and Walt are childless, and figure that adopting a chimp is the next best thing to being parents. But as Looee gets older and larger, the inevitable happens when his animal instincts take over and he attacks humans. He spends the next 14 years in a research facility, being tested, injected, sedated, and kept in a cage. Eventually he is introduced to a population of other chimps and he had to learn to interact with unfamiliar animals. It’s a unique perspective as it attempts to demonstrate the social structure of chimp society. I was disappointed that I didn’t get to know more about Judy and Walt’s lives after their world was shattered. I really wanted to know how the people attacked recovered from their grave injuries and how they learned to adjust to life after Looee. It is not an easy book to read because of the style and the subject, but I must say that it is original.

I received a complimentary copy of this book via the Amazon Vine program.

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Bestie Banters – Leaving Time

Rach and I read the new Jodi Picoult book, Leaving Time and discussed our feelings over e-mail.  Warning: our discussion contains MAJOR spoilers:

Julz: OK, what the hell is up with the M. Night Shymalan Sixth Sense twist ending?  THEY WERE ALL DEAD.  Everyone who mattered in the mystery were ghosts or spirits or whatever and none of them realized they were dead.  I felt a little cheated.  Did you have any inkling it was going to turn out that way?  Me, I don’t try to predict or think ahead too much.  I just get lost in the moment while I’m reading.

Rach: I know, right?!?!  I was pretty peeved near the end of the book.  It almost seemed like she said “Ok, Jenna is dead – who is every single person that needs to also be dead for this to work?  Oh EVERYONE?  Alrighty then – full speed ahead”.  Something seemed off to me the entire story, but that’s not uncommon for Jodi since she always has that unexpected twist to finish off her books.  The moments that triggered my doubt: Grace’s mom and the weeping walls, Jenna’s ability to make it all the way to Nashville unnoticed (was the little boy she ‘played’ hide and seek with dead too?  Or just able to see her – and then does that mean the mom was dead as well?  How did she drive a truck?  Oh this novel is giving me a headache….), and how she found Gideon so easily.  But no matter the doubt, I never saw the entire mess coming at me.

Julz: I think that means the kid was alive but could see Jenna. Once she did find Gideon (conveniently), was he driving her around in a spirit truck?  And if he realized who she was and wanted to get in touch with her, why didn’t he just disapparate to New Hampshire to explain things to her.  And the poltergeist thing, just STRANGE.

Rach: Great point about Gideon.  I’m surprised he didn’t seek out Alice just as Jenna was.

Julz: I found it strange that Jenna would “grow up.”  She was killed when she was three, why would she be a teenager now and spending the afterlife going to Junior High?

Rach: I also thought this was strange – but I tied it back to how Serenity stated that people don’t show up how they were when they died, but how they want to be remembered.  Now, after thinking about it further, if she didn’t know she was dead – how did she get to chose how she shows up to the living?  Did her grandmother know they were dead?  So many people (ghosts? spirits?)  interacted with Jenna and Virgil…It’s almost like a movie you want to go back and revisit to see if you can pick up on all the clues dropped throughout the story.

I had to chuckle though – thinking back to Serenity looking like a total nut job with her pink hair talking to herself the entire novel.

Julz: Maybe grandma stayed behind to help Jenna transition over once she came to terms with what happened.  That’s why she was such a bitch about talking about Alice.  She couldn’t be bothered to worry about the living when she had her granddaughter’s “soul” to worry about.

Rach: I completely agree with you, it would make sense considering how completely cut off grandma was.  I just figured she was just poor at grieving and stuck in her own depression about losing her daughter.

What were your thoughts on the relationships between everyone at the elephant sanctuary?

Julz: Well I certainly thought Thomas was crazy-pants, but his mission was noble.  I really think Alice had no one but herself to blame for so hastily marrying a man she barely knew and sacrificing her own research.  As for the rest of the folks, when you live and work that closely together 24/7, there’s bound to be some tension.  If Alice had just kept her legs closed though, none of this would have happened!

Many reviewers thought this was just a platform for Jodi to discuss the plight of elephants.  I enjoyed it, more than I did the wolves in Lone Wolf.  What are your thoughts?

Rach: This was actually my favorite part of the book, and why it received 4 stars from me.  I would have dropped it lower had I not been completely fascinated by all the facts and lives of the elephants.  I’m tempted to learn more about them because of it.  And I want to learn how to make a tiny origami elephant.

Julz: I appreciated that the elephants had distinct personalities.  They seemed to convey emotion more than any of the humans, that’s for sure.

Rach: I was also surprised at my lack of connection with any one character.  I usually fall head over heels for at least one Jodi character and get emotionally invested.  In this case, I felt more for Maura the elephant than any one person.

Julz: I liked Serenity most, because she was so unapologetic about her whole shtick.  But no, I didn’t feel emotionally vested in anyone in particular, either.  Despite a few frustrations and the absurd ending, it was still a compelling novel.

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Normal by Graeme Cameron

9780778318507_BB.inddPublished by Mira, March 2015 ****

Delving into the mind of a serial killer always makes for a fun read. But this book went in a totally different direction than I initially thought. What started as a gruesome portrayal of dismemberment and caged victims turned into a dark comedy when Mr. Murderer falls in love. The meticulous, merciless deviant seems detached from reality and emotion until he meets Rachel. When he is smitten, he is careless, and that won’t fly when the police come asking questions. He tries desperately to curb his bloodlust, but one of his victims is causing trouble for him and his sloppiness is causing suspicion. The conclusion was bizarre and intense, and the ending was left to the reader’s imagination. Will he be found out or will he get away with it? As much as I wanted to know the answer to the question, the ambiguity of his fate was very well done.

I received a complimentary copy of this book via the Amazon Vine program.

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Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

smoke gets in your eyesPublished by W.W. Norton, September 2014 ****

I went into this thinking that Doughty would expose all things sordid and gory about the death industry. While there were plenty of anecdotes illustrating the grim realities of cremation and body disposal (I wouldn’t recommend reading the chapter about dead babies during dinner), it wasn’t quite as in-your-face as I anticipated. I give the girl props – to immerse herself in the business of dying as a profession takes gumption. Her morbid curiosity of death and the macabre comes off as purposeful, if quirky. Her humor isn’t knee-slapping hilarious, but Doughty is clever and witty. This book is really her own crusade to alleviate the stigma surrounding death and to advocate alternative practices in the funeral industry. The standards we have come to believe as “normal” in the 20th century aren’t necessarily a requirement. It was definitely an insightful and compelling perspective that engages the reader to consider their mortality.

Similar humor and subject, I recommend Stiff by Mary Roach.


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Inbox/Outbox (Literally)

Remember how I said December was going to be a leisurely read-what-I-want month?  Scratch that.  Picked up three vine books and two nonfictions from Harper Perennial (plus I signed up for a couple of tours in 2015):

  • Normal by Graeme Cameron
  • A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam
  • West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan
  • Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and a Divided Nation by Yossi Klein Halevi
  • The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life by Andy Miller

I love that this happened.  I’m calling it the Little Letter That Could.

One of my pen pals sent me this awesome embroidered pillow case for my birthday:

Pillow case

The tree is up, the house is festive, and I’ve started shopping in earnest.  I finished my Christmas cards, though I lamented the fact that I bought glittery cards, because glitter everywhere.  So if you’re on my recipient list, be prepared for an explosion of green glitter when you open the envelope.

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