Review: The Beginners, by Rebecca Wolff

The Beginners
a novel
By Rebecca Wolff
hardcover; 304 pgs
Riverhead Books
June 30, 2011
Buy it on Amazon
Award-winning poet Rebecca Wolff's new novel The Beginners* is somewhat frightening, yet beautiful. Her prose is indicative of a poet's hand, metaphors running from one waterfall to the next with ease. It's the uber-typical story of a teenage girl's sensual and sexual coming-of-age in small-town-America. This paradigm is complicated by, first, the fact that this small New England town has a relatively grotesque history and, second, the appearance of some newcomers (the Motherwells) who take an immediate and unshakable interest in our young protagonist, Ginger Pritt.

It is never entirely clear why the Motherwells choose this town, nor why they pick on Ginger. They change their story at every turn, but the constant seems to be a relation to the Salem Witch Trials. While this should add a sort of creepy sheen to the already strange tale, the fact that their stories are never straight only leads to more and more confusion.

As far as sexual awakening stories go, Ginger Pritt's is a bit extreme. But the reader's concern for her well-being is hindered by the jaded narrative voice which seems to come directly from the author rather than from Pritt. Ginger, whether by "bewitchment" or not, seems to lack a moral compass, and her continual forays in the wrong moral direction create a void in which the reader never finds catharsis.

As far as poets' adventures into prose narratives go, I think I've got to give Rebecca Wolff a B- on this one. She manages the feelings of teenage angst and the disproportionate sense of abandonment that goes with it, but she never quite captures any of her characters in full and, instead of applying these qualities to people, they instead seem to be broader qualities of the town. Had Wolff committed to that concept, this book might have a chill to it, worthy of M. Night Shyamalan. But she didn't, and (sadly) it doesn't.                                    

*Just to be clear, this is book has no relation to the recently released Mike Mills film, "Begginers" starring Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer. 


Summer Sundays: Beach Reads #4 - I'll Mature When I'm Dead, by Dave Barry

In my experience, Dave Barry is one of those writers who either makes you pee your pants laughing, or makes you shrug. I personally don't care for comedy in many of its forms - "Anchorman," "The Hangover"... movies like that don't do it for me. Stand-up? No thanks, I'll sit. But Dave Barry? He tickles me. I don't know why my funny bone is so buried, I'm not even completely sure where it is. But Dave Barry finds it every goddamn time and just kills me.

As a teenager, I would look forward to seeing his columns from the Miami Herald syndicated in the Orlando Sentinel. A few years later, his work with Ridley Pearson (the Starcatcher series) enamored me. But in this book, Barry is up to his old tricks - the short essay.

This volume is a collection on what it means to be an adult - everything from becoming a new father, to owning a dog, to dealing with women, to dealing with your 9-year-old daughter's dance recitals. I read this one solely at work, and my coworkers were wondering what was wrong with me, I was giggling so often. I think the target audience is just slightly older than myself, but I was definitely able to appreciate his witticisms and contrary attitude towards the establishment, really his ability to dispel anxiety with humor.

If you've never read Dave Barry, I have to recommend Dave Barry Slept Here: A Sort of History of the United States. That should get your juices going. But if you're of an age where children and prostate exams are looming in the near distant future, go for the gold with I'll Mature When I'm Dead. And in any case, make sure you actually ENJOY Barry before bringing this one to the beach, otherwise you may find yourself pretty bored and decide to wallpaper a sandcastle with its pages.


An Open Letter to the Douchebags of the World

It has come to my attention as recently as four hours ago that your ignominious stupidity simply knows no end. One of your brethren, who for the moment shall remain nameless, pursued me for many years and now, it's finally done. I finally sought to end the tiresome back and forth of textual communications and long-distance bullshit, and I put a solid end to the entire ordeal. The fact is this relentless human being had, over the course of the preceding three years, communed with me while in other relationships. Note the plural.

Once I acknowledged this, I saw absolutely no need to remain in contact with him. For the last ten months I had enjoyed peace. But then, just after I had gotten out of work this evening, then came the ever-predictable texting, as if it had never ended. I haven't checked, but my guess is that either he's just broken up with his most recent lady, or he's bored with her. Ladies, be warned. I have to wonder (though I didn't deign any of this evening's communiqués with a response) what it is that makes men (and, I'm sure, some women) pull this kind of stunt! What makes them think they can get away with that. I mean...I'll put up with...well, not a lot, but I know no one's perfect. But this? No one wants to be the other woman. No one wants to be benched every other inning (oh shit, a sports analogy). A woman wants to be Elizabeth Bennet, not Lydia.

Doesn't it look like his left hand got
eaten by that magenta scarf he's got
wrapped around his waist?
Now there's a perfect example of a douchebag: George Wickham. He takes everything he's blessed with in his upbringing and throws it into the fire for whores and booze. Then in an attempt to reclaim that which he "is owed" he (about 26 at the time) tries to woo a 15-year-old heiress, screws her up for life, and goes off to attempt to ruin other lives including, but not limited to, Mary King and Lydia Bennet. He gets cozy with Elizabeth, gets engaged to another heiress (King) and then, when Mary's uncle takes her out of George's wicked way, he goes back to Elizabeth who, by then, has found him out, so then he runs off with her sister and ruins her, the situation descending into the depths only to be slightly rectified by Mr. Darcy. Dear douchebags, stay away from my baby sister or so help me I will end you before you can put a hand out for a hand-out.

That's it. Stare longingly. Right into
Emma Thompson's heart.
Or let's take John Willoughby, hmm? Now there's a winner. Goes around screwing everyone except for his "true love," Marianne. He's reckless, he ruins and abandons Col. Brandon's now-pregnant ward and then goes traipsing off to woo Marianne, he leaves Marianne in tears and runs off to London to marry Miss Grey (while also abandoning country for city, though he so professed his love of country and cottage)...and then when Marianne is sick and seems near death, Willoughby happens by and professes his love blah blah blah though he's already married Miss Grey. Elinor basically rolls her eyes at him, as I would (and did) this evening.

"Look into my eyes, look into my eyes,
the eyes, the eyes, eyes, not around the eyes,
don't look around the eyes, look into my eyes
...you're under. You'll come with me to India.
You'll be my subservient worker-wife.
You'll never be as pretty as Rosamond. 3-2-1
...you're back in the room."
And how about St. John Rivers? He's in love with Rosamond Oliver. She's in love with him. Her dad's cool with it, St. John's family is cool with it. If St. John had an ounce of Wickham's character, he'd be all over that. But St. John's a control freak. St. John believes in practicality, so he says no thank you to Rosamond and invites Jane to be his "practical" wife and move to India with him. Jane, smart and passionate (read: not an idiot) that she is, says no thank you and runs back to her love who, by the by, while he may keep his bat shit crazy wife locked in the attic, at least he's not pretending to love her while also loving the elfin Jane (or pretending not to love her while also loving Jane, as St. John did with Rosamond.)

Dear douchebags of the world, is this where you get your ideas, or am I giving you too many intelligence points on credit? Maybe you've just seen too many Tom Cruise movies. Or, for that matter, Dane Cook movies. Seriously, though, why would you take any of these characters in stride? You all do it. Every single one of you is more one of these than the other, but you're all the same. Why would you want to end up like Wickham, basically poor, stuck with young Lydia as a wife (who, by the way, has inherited her mother's fits and whines and...ahem....nerves), and living completely indebted to the man you hate most in the world. What of that?

Count Mondego doesn't actually
need a sword. He will cut you
with his cheekbones.
Or what of Willoughby in his loveless marriage? Surely they have some money, now, but what about when the lack of interest you have in your wife turns to whoring and gambling? What then? Will you still ride up to the top of the hill and stare longingly down at the woman you once called your true love? Doubtful - you'll probably make the mistake of challenging Count Mondego (there's another douchebag for you) to a duel and getting stabbed in the heart.

Or do you maybe prefer the quiet missionary life, alone in India, pining for Rosamond, but only writing to Jane for you know that she'd really like it there with you all mopey and dying-like.

Yeah, none of those sound at all like fun.

And so, douchebags of the world, I offer you this challenge: get a life. Crawl out from the porn-den of a rock under which you reside, and learn how to become a civil human being. No means no, yes means maybe. Don't cheat on the one your're with, and make sure you're with the one you love. Life is too short to go around spending it like a douchebag (even if the life expectancy seems longer these days).

Sincerely (albeit somewhat desperately),


Monday Mailbox #11

This week, some oldies and some slightly younger oldies.

Of Mice and Men
by John Steinbeck
An oldie, but a goodie. If you like that kind of thing. 
I happen to love Steinbeck's tragic way with words.

Tales of the Islanders
by Charlotte Brontë
The fourth volume in the Hesperus Press's collection 
of Charlotte Brontë's juvenilia. 

Islands in the Stream,
by Ernest Heminway
As in the edition seen here, my copy says 
"the new novel by Ernest Hemingway" which, 
considering he's been dead for 50 years next month, 
is kind of hilarious. 

Let's Take the Long Way Home
by Gail Caldwell
From the office's lending library. Expect tears.

The Siege of Krishnapur
by J. G. Farrell
An NYRB classic from 2004, 
originally published in 1973.


Summer Sundays: Beach Reads #3 - Silver Girl, by Elin Hilderbrand, a Review

Silver Girl
by Elin Hilderbrand
416 pages
Reagan Arthur Books 
(Little, Brown)
June 21, 2011
Buy it on Amazon
Part beach-read, part a Law & Order plot "ripped from the headlines,"Silver Girl (due out this Tuesday) is unmistakably based on the trials of Ruth Alpern Madoff, wife of Wall Street Ponzi-schemer Bernie Madoff.

Author Elin Hilderbrand has managed to take this woman who enjoyed decades in the spotlight, living the highlife, a woman who has now fallen lower than low thanks to the scheming of her good-for-nothing husband, and make her not only relatable, but sympathetic. This is partly achieved by mirroring Meredith's life with that of her best friend Connie's. The two of them haven't spoken in years thanks to their pride and resentment. But they manage to find their hearts again and rediscover their friendship.

They go to Nantucket, to Connie's summer home, for the safety and privacy that the island usually maintains. But that privacy is short-lived as their lives become plagued with threats and vandalism related to Meredith's ongoing investigation by the FBI.

The story is told from Connie and Meredith's alternating perspectives, and their joint memories are part of Hilderbrand's real success. The steadfast theme is forgiveness, and while one can easily find the grace to forgive Meredith who, as it turns out, knew nothing of her husband's bad business, one wonders if Ruth Alpern will ever be so blessed.

This book is long. That's not a complaint. At 416 pages (and in hardcover - the paperback is due out in November), it's got some heft. And Hildrebrand has no cause to fluff the story up to fill those pages - it's all solid story. Which is good if you like to read. Or if you like to have a pillow at the beach. Or if you got burned by Madoff and need something to throw. This book is multifunctional like that. Though I recommend the reading feature.


Book Blogger Hop 6/17-6/20

This week's* Book Blogger Hop question, care of Crazy for Books, is:

Book Blogger HopQ. How many books are currently in your To-Be-Read (TBR) Pile?
A. The physical pile? 30.
The imaginary pile? 220. Those are the ones that are on my Amazon list/ are on my NYPL saved list/ are on my librarything list, or that are on my list I'm constantly updating on my computer as "books I should have read ages ago, goddammit Lauren what is wrong with you? go and read these now."

It does not, however, include the ones I've earmarked in upcoming publishers' catalogues, nor does it include any yet-unwritten books by Ian McEwan or John Connolly, most of which, once written, would be thrown on top of the pile.

*I need to thank Nicole for doing this, or I wouldn't have known about it!


Review: Scarlet - King Raven Trilogy, Book 2, by Stephen Lawhead

Scarlet is the second volume of Stephen Lawhead’s King Raven trilogy. Billed as "Robin Hood - the legend begins anew," the first volume, Hood, gives re-birth to the Robin Hood of lore in a new time and a new place. Rather than keeping to the assumed boundaries of the Old English tales, Lawhead explores what he (as he explains in the afterword, titled "Robin Hood in Wales?") believes could be the true origins of the legendary thief and his band of merry men. Scarlet continues in this tradition with the introduction of William Scatlocke (friends call him Scarlet), forced from home and occupation by the Normans, who seeks out King Raven as an ally.

Thankfully, this volume lacks the expository quality of its predecessor, briefly sketching Will Scarlet’s past, and planting him presently among King Raven and the Grellon who reside in Cél Craidd¹. The groundwork having been deftly laid in Hood with memorable characters, Will’s story takes precedence and becomes everyone’s story. At first, the method of storytelling is somewhat strange: we find Will to be in prison, telling his story to a Norman monk who takes the story down. He has been sentenced to hang, though for what, and how he came to be arrested, are not said outright. But as the story progresses, the banter between Will and his jail companion becomes less jarring, and is inevitably integral to the rest of the story.

This volume is certainly richer both in character and in structure – there are more charades, more adventure, and more villainy. Finally introduced in this volume are characters familiar to the Robin Hood legend: the antagonistic and corrupt sheriff (Richard de Glanville) and his deputy, Guy of Gysburne, There’s also something to be said for the love story² – a little romance in the woods can go a long way. And while Mèrian seems reluctant to seal the deal with Bran, Scarlet manages to find love and a family. The little romantic girl in my heart might have squee’d a little.

My one and only teeny tiny complaint is how easily the baron’s/sheriff’s/abbot’s men go down. I know these men of the woods are quick on the draw and all, but we’re talking 4 or 5 very quick bowmen letting off arrow after arrow, downing man after man – through shields, through bodies… there must be something in the water, because the Grellon kill soldiers with almost machine-gun-rapidity.

The conclusion of the trilogy, Tuck, focuses on…you guessed it, Friar Tuck as the conflict between the Normans and the Welsh reaches its climax. Expect (more) blood. More on that later this summer.

[1] The narrative action of Scarlet takes place about a year after Hood leaves off.
[2] Not the Glanville-Gisbourne love story. Maybe that comes in Tuck.

Monday Mailbox #10

More goodies! And these are some lookers, ladies & gentlemen!

First off, 
The Beginners, by Rebecca Wolff

I won this one through librarything.com's Early Reviewers' Program in May. I'm pretty sure I signed up for it because of the cover. I'm in lovvvve with this cover. I hope that I love the book just as much. This title is due out June 30, 2011 from Riverhead (Hardcover).

Silver Girl, by Elin Hilderbrand

I requested this book from the Hachette Book Group because I was interested in the story...but also because I thought the cover was pretty. I can't help myself. I'm a little bit of a cover snob. Now, as a review copy, I'd expected a paperback with a rendered cover/no cover. But in my mailbox today was a hardcover copy and, believe me when I tell you this, I was floored by how gorgeous the cover actually is. This image doesn't do it justice. The colors on the actual copy are so vibrant and rich - one of my coworkers described it as "an orgasm for the eyes." I said I wanted to mount the book on my wall. But enough of that. This title is due out June 21, 2011 from Reagan Arthur Books (an imprint of Hachette). 


Summer Sundays: Beach Reads #2 - Some Assembly Required, by Lynn Kiele Bonasia

Now this is a beach read. There's some tasteful boot-knocking, a beach, a somewhat less obvious mystery than that last one, and some highly sympathetic characters. There's no question that you should read this while sea-side. I mean c'mon, there are flip flops on the cover.

Published in July of 2008, it's the story of a heart-broken 39-year-old Rose Nowak who moves from Boston to Cape Cod to escape her cheating ex, her job as a manual-writer, and all the noise of the city. She rents a cottage from a less than perfectly sane local who, along with her neighbor, takes care of an autistic boy named Noel whose mother died when he was young, and whose uncle abandoned him for the inside of a bottle.

At one point in the book, in a hallucinatory state, a drunken God tells Noel's uncle that the gift he gave Noel was not his art (he's an austic savant, a painting genius), but his ability to bring people together. That's what the book is really about - Rose is just the facilitator. She writes the article about Noel that gets his uncle to come back. But it's Noel's painting that helps solve Nauset's biggest mystery and tears down emotional walls. Unlike Kelman's book, there's no overworking here. The juxtaposition of manual instructions with Noel's outbursts of "lasts" is both poignant and endearing, and Noel's perspicacity is very real - certainly the best rendering of autism I've seen in fiction.

This was Bonasia's first novel - she published another beachy Cape Cod novel last year, titled Summer Shift, and she has another novel coming out this week called Countess Nobody which seems like it would be less beachy, but entertaining.


Review: The Judges of the Secret Court, by David Stacton

The Judges of
the Secret Court
A Novel About
John Wilkes Booth
by David Stacton
272 pages
NYRB Classics
June 7, 2011
Perhaps one of the most interesting books I'll read this summer, The Judges of the Secret Court is a novel of that very special brand that manages to coat history* with a velvety smooth layer of lacquered foundation-like fiction, the kind that blends away the unwanted irregularities and abnormalities, and makes the story glow. It's the story of the persons involved (by conspiracy or by blood) in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. At the root though, it is about the Booth family madness and its manifestation in John Wilkes Booth.

Rather than touting Lincoln's better qualities, Stacton casts him in a negative light, reflecting Wilkes' narcissistic visions and perplexing patriotism. The world spins on an axis with Wilkes at one pole and Secretary of War Stanton at the other, both revolving in ever-maddening circles, throwing the spin out of control.

After Wilkes is dead, though, the story loses some of its sheen. Older brother Edwin Booth and one of Wilkes' co-conspirators, Mrs. Surratt, move into the foreground (they're mentioned very early-on in the book, but they don't really hit their groove until this point), but it seems all Stacton has for them is sympathy.

Meanwhile, the misbegotten co-conspirators' trial moves on, puppeteered by Secretary Stanton, leading up to and ending with the executioner's block. Stanton's hypertension is less interesting than Wilkes' story (and even less interesting than Wilkes' gangrene), but Stacton still treats it as a symptom of the madness.

The fusing of factual detail and literary license is all but seamless. Stacton's work is not only well-researched, but also enjoys a good amount of poignant and sophisticated irony, the kind that keeps the pages turning. The constant references to Shakespeare add a richness to the text as both allusion and, one could argue, delusion. In the end, Edwin Booth is left to suffer through life, a portrait of Johnny haunting him, judging him, waiting. It's a great literary and psychological study of the way the roles in which we cast ourselves can often bleed into reality, often confounding the dividing line between true and false, right and wrong, president and tyrant.                

*It would make for a great addition to the high school English or American History curriculum, but for one thing - that it has almost as many references to blacks as "niggers" as Twain's Huckleberry Finn; while one could argue (as with the latter) the circumstances of time and place, this book was written 77 years later, and many censors don't take kindly to that kind of retrospective use of the word. And anyway, the American education system is flawed and doesn't do much.


Monday Mailbox #9

Two goodies!

Second Reading
Notable & Neglected Books Revisited
by Jonathan Yardley

Due out in July 2011 from Europa Editions, it's a "collection of reviews and reevaluations" written by book critic Jonathan Yardley (a Pulitzer Prize-winner), covering everything from Native Son to Tom Jones to Cannery Row to Rebecca. According to my proof, the book has sixty pieces in its 360 pages, and then there are another thirty-seven being made available on the website. This isn't just a book, it's an education. Can't wait. 

The Judges of the Secret Court
A Novel about John Wilkes Booth
by David Stacton

Care of New York Review Books, this is the first edition of Stacton's book in paperback. It's due out on Tuesday (6/7/11) and I managed to get my hands on a review copy at the last minute, so now I've put off the other two books I had started (Scarlet, by Stephen Lawhead; I'll Mature When I'm Dead, by Dave Barry) and am trying to push through this one. I don't have a day off this weekend, so I've got to do all of my reading on the way to and from work, and what little I can while at work. It's a mere 272 pages so on a good day off, I could finish it in a few hours. But with work and its distractions, not to mention my incessant need to fall asleep on the train on the way to work, it's a challenge. How about that cover, though, huh? I can already hear my mother asking to borrow this one...


Summer Sundays: Beach Reads #1 - Summer of Storms, by Judith Kelman

So maybe it's not the first book you might think of reading at the beach, but that's just where you should read it. Where you should not read it is alone in your apartment after dark...which is what I did.

Thankfully this "novel of suspense" doesn't live up to Ghostface Killer standards, but it has its expected moments of imminent danger. That is, unless you had my copy (which I got from the lobby of my building) in which the previous reader (or at least someone who read it since it was published in 2001) had highlighted some kind of important parts and, as a result, I knew who the killer was long before anyone else figured it out. Published in March of 2001, it revolves around a family's inability to cope even 30 years after the unsolved murder of a 5 year old girl.

After the girl's murder (which remains unsolved), her parents and her sister escaped to one of the Carolinas, but never really moved on. Now the girl's younger sister, who was just three years old at the time of the incident, is trying to make her mark as a big time photojournalist. She ends up taking a job back in New York, much to her mother's horror, and getting this weirdly situated and even more strangely described loft apartment in Brooklyn (Kelman skimps on some of the details, i.e. she can see the WTC from her roof, but the subway's location seems indeterminate. It bothered me the whole book. There she is, rushing off to work, but when she first saw the apartment, she had to walk quite a bit from the train. Now she's rushing that in heels? How far is the train?) Then (oh no!) her parents start receiving strange phone calls essentially warning them of some repeated doom. Meanwhile, a group of cold case solvers take on the 30-year-old murder after getting their own strange phone call. 

In retrospect you'll probably figure it out even without some helpful highlighting. Despite the author's attempts to cloud the mind with plot line with too many characters, too many suspects, and far too many points of view, the facts are pretty straightforward and not terribly interesting, which is just what you need for  the beach. It's like the acknowledgements page or the creepy haphazardly handwritten font used for chapter titles - so much overworking, and for what? A beach read with zero gratuitous sex. Like I said, not the first thing you want to bring to the beach, but it'll suffice, if only as a temporary pillow or tool for shading your face from the sun.


Review: Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier

Rebecca has always been a "thing" in my family. My mother and her mother love the film, and that love quickly passed to me at a very early age. This is a book that I should have bought and read over 10 years ago. But somehow, it eluded me.

If you're not familiar with the film, GET FAMILIAR. It's Alfred Hitchcock, Laurence Oliver, Joan Fontaine, Dame Judith Anderson, Reginald Denny, George Sanders, Gladys Cooper, Nigel Bruce, Florence Bates... and it's amazing.

But in case you're not familiar right this moment, Rebecca is the story of the second Mrs. de Winter - a young thing of 21 who meets a brooding Edward Rochester Maxim de Winter while playing companion to an older lady in Monte Carlo. They marry, and Maxim brings his new wife home to his family's grand estate, Manderley (which, if you're following along, may be Thornfield spelled backwards. Get my drift?) But Jane Eyre the new Mrs. de Winter, lives in the shadow of Maxim's late first wife, Bertha Rebecca, who (by all accounts, a lively and beautiful woman) drowned about a year ago in the bay nearby the mansion. This shadow is darkened by the presence of the first Mrs. de Winter's personal maid-now-housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (who, in the film, is played by Dame Judith Anderson, not to be confused with Billie Whitelaw as the nanny in "The Omen," though I'm pretty sure one of them, if not both, ran the Catholic school I went to as a kid), a skeletal woman of questionable faculties.

The novel pretty much reinforced the way I feel about the film. For the most part, that's due to Hitchcock's mastery: his casting is perfect, his direction is perfect...there's little I can say about the film that would separate it from the book. It's also partly due to the fact that the novel is written in the first person, from Mrs. de Winter's point of view, and therefore is a lot of internalizing and psychological examination, which can be succinctly portrayed in a film.

There are however, some key differences that, while they don't deter, certainly make me see things differently. For one thing, for the most important thing, is Rebecca's death. I won't spoil it for you, but the film refuses to take one final step in her death that the book does not, and that step provides multiple levels of character that are therefore not present in the film.

The other difference is Mrs. Danvers' behavior. In the film, she's made more aloof, more creepy, and it deals with her in the end as you would deal with a living, breathing artifact of the evil Rebecca's presence. But in the book, she's more human... which is almost scarier.