Summer house with swimming pool : a novel

From  Catherine Given

 Author:  Herman Koch

 Title:  Summer house with swimming pool : a novel

This is a gritty and disturbing Whodunit, but so much more. It could be subtitled, “Why bad things happen to bad Dads and their children.”

SHWSP begins calmly as the main character, Marc, a married general practitioner, reveals to us the shocking thoughts and fantasies behind his bland façade, as he examines and advises his patients.  He then plans his family’s summer by the sea, to provide himself a chance to see a friend’s wife, whom he fancies. He, his wife and two daughters, a young teen and a “tween,” camp in a beach tent in the friends’ neighborhood and then accept that family’s “surprise” invitation to stay at their summer house. Tension builds quickly as we realize the diabolical and misogynistic nature of several characters there. These menacing characters, as well as Marc and his family, become caught up in a series of creepy, disturbing events. I couldn’t put it down.

Next life might be kinder

From Catherine Given

Author:  Howard Norman

Title:   Next life might be kinder  

Some books are easy – they give us free choice to dip into their pages — others hold us captive. This one’s hold was surprisingly fierce. In Next Life Might Be Kinder, Sam, a newly married writer/birdwatcher and Elizabeth, his gentle wife who is writing her dissertation, set up housekeeping in an apartment in an old Halifax hotel.

Howard recounts their dreamy, Zen-like existence, enlivened once a week by dance lessons, shattered to smithereens by Elizabeth’s murder. Norman depicts Sam’s devastation in a spell-binding, no-frills, stream-of-consciousness style.

Peter, an egomaniacal filmmaker, breaks through Sam’s numbing grief when he makes him an offer for the couple’s tragic story – one Sam feels he can’t refuse. Violation of Sam’s privacy and desecration of his memories of Elizabeth ensue, putting Sam’s ethics and his patience with Peter, to the test.


Mrs. Hemingway : a novel

From Catherine Given
Author:  Naomi Wood
Title:  Mrs. Hemingway : a novel
A lively account of Ernest Hemingway’s infatuation addiction, which led him to marry four times, Mrs. Hemingway features colorful settings from Paris to Cuba, inhabited by the “Lost Generation’s” Sara and Gerald Murphy, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Wood’s ear for dialogue rings exceptionally true, in explosive interactions among the impossible yet magnetic Hemingway, his mistresses and soon-to-be-replaced wives. The four wives were formidable, with careers and driving passions of their own. In Mrs. Hemingway, Naomi Wood spotlights their strengths and weaknesses, detailing life as seen through their distinctive eyes in each of the narrative’s four parts. We may know the ending, but the dramatic contrast between the whirlwind that was Hemingway’s 1920’s experience, and the desperate hollowness of his final days in Idaho is stunning. This book may leave you yearning to learn more about each of these remarkable women!

I hate to leave this beautiful place

From Catherine Given
Author:  Howard Norman
Title:   I hate to leave this beautiful place

I would place this book in the top five books I’ve read.

By the author of “The Bird Artist” and “What is Left the Daughter,” this book is not — as the title might suggest, and as I first feared — the story of a terminal illness. Rather, the book’s title derives from an Inuit folk tale about a man transformed into a goose, who utters the title sentence at the onset of winter. “I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place” is a pensive, unforgettable memoir about love, beauty, grief, poverty and peace as well as cultural differences, the literary life, shamanism, and mental illness.

In what Norman calls “associative patterns” rather than original chronologies,” the topics and beloved landscapes he says are covered here include a” bookmobile and an elusive father in the Midwest, a landscape painter whose plane crashes in Saskatchewan, a murder-suicide in my family’s house, a Quagmiriut Inuit rock band specializing in the songs of John Lennon; and in Vermont, a missing cat, a well drilling, and my older brother’s requests to be smuggled into Canada.” A good memoir gives the reader snapshots and a linear life story. Norman’s associative patterns instead create a richly textured mosaic.

Love, Nina : a nanny writes home

From Catherine Given
Author:  Nina Stibbe
Title:  Love, Nina : a nanny writes home 
Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home is a fun book full of quirky British humor about a 20-year-old’s early 1980’s adventures as a nanny in London.  Nina’s story is told exclusively via letters she wrote to her sister, describing her adjustment to working for a single-Mom professor with two boys. Her deadpan play-by-play account of the boys’ obsessive over-examination of their lives is hilarious. Her pared-down, transcript style makes for a very intimate and quick energetic read.

Nina also recounts her everyday dealings and dinner conversations with literary luminaries including those of actor/director Alan Bennett. His wry and wittily avuncular interactions with Nina’s host family add extra spice to Nina’s musings.

Small Hotel

From Catherine Given
Author:  Robert Olen  Butler
Small Hotel
It’s amazing what the element of suspense adds to most any plot. I picked up A Small Hotel by Robert Olen Butler expecting to read the sad tale of a couple’s separation after 20 years. Instead, because the book juxtaposes flashbacks of the couple’s first meeting with a dangerous present-day situation spinning out of control, I couldn’t put it down. Butler is highly adept at capturing both male and female voices delivering a strong dose of emotional truth. The setting further heightens the novel’s impact, highlighting the contrast between the hushed luxury of a landmark New Orleans hotel, and the messy, stressful challenges of an American marriage.

The descendants: a novel

From Catherine Given
Author:  Kaui Hart  Hemmings
The descendants: a novel
By now you’ve probably seen either The Descendants’ promos or the movie featuring George Clooney and Beau Bridges. In the novel it’s based on, Hemmings provides a sensitive account of the dealings of a comfortably numb man. Matthew, the mostly emotionally absent father of a  wacky,disconnected family, along with daughters Alex, a scornful young adult, and Scottie, who’s ten going on 30, have  just suffered a great shock.  His wife, Joanie, has had a boat-racing accident, leaving the threesome in limbo, for the first time totally dependent on each other.

Matthew hasn’t spent any time with the girls as they were too young to relate to. He’s been so busy preserving his founding Hawaiian family’s legacy that he and his kids are strangers to each other.  “I come from the school of thought where a dad’s absence is something to be counted on,” he says.  . . . “I remember the girls sort of bothered me as babies, the way everyone raced around to accommodate them. . . .It felt like I was living with royalty.”

These characters are beautifully delineated, realistically flawed and out of necessity, it seems, eventually nurturing to one another. You’ll feel you know them well by the time a few plot twists have churned and settled to momentary stillness, like a surge of Hawaiian surf. Their newly-reconstituted family’s warm but bumpy ride has just begun.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: my year of magical reading

From Catherine Given
Author:  Nina Sankovitch
Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: my year of magical reading
I just finished Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch, about a woman who self-prescribes a book a day for a year as a way to re-group after her beloved sister’s death.  It’s a beautifully written story of lessons distilled from 365 authors’ works.  By briefly sharing what she derives from the experience and how she applies writers’ messages to her own life, Sankovitch creates a unique memoir, one that any avid reader of books will appreciate.  She also provides a list of richly meaningful non-fiction and fiction books to add to our own must-reads.  She says:

\”Words are witness to life: They record what has happened and they make it real. . . . Stories about lives remembered bring us backward while allowing us to move forward.  The only balm to sorrow is memory:  The only salve for the pain of losing someone to death is acknowledging the life that existed before.\”

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair will likely be cherished by anyone mourning the loss of a loved one.  For others, it will provide an affirmation of the value of thoughtful reading of good literature.

Sister : a novel

From Catherine Given
author: Lupton, Rosamund
Sister : a novel
Authors of mysteries often employ flashbacks, but Rosamund Lupton doesn’t stop there in her debut novel. Two young Londoners,  sisters  Beatrice and Tess, remained close despite pursuing careers an ocean apart.  Upon learning that Tess is missing, Beatrice, the story’s narrator, rushes in from New York.  Much of Sister is written in the form of Beatrice’s present-day imagined letters to Tess. But a great deal of the story takes place in the murky past, as Beatrice recounts her investigation to “Mr. Wright,” a CPS Lawyer. Retracing her sister’s steps, the normally retiring and polite Beatrice, badgers the London police and medical community, questioning everyone connected with Tess’s last-known words and actions.  She soon realizes that she can trust no one.  Beatrice’s guilt and anxiety-ridden “letters” to Tess trap the reader inside her constant torment. Suspense builds powerfully to the story line’s dramatic final twist.  Sister shares John LeCarre’s distrust of the MedicoPharma Industrial Complex as expressed in his acclaimed novel, The Constant Gardener.  It’s a great summer read.

Tiger Hills

From Catherine Given
author: Mandanna, Sarita
Tiger Hills
Though one might guess otherwise, the book Tiger Hills has nothing to do with a championship golf course.  Rather, it’s a classic saga, so richly spiced that reading it is like enjoying an authentic curry.  Here’s Sarita Mandanna’s winning recipe:  sift together the triumph over adversity of The Good Earth,  the fierce matriarchal determination of Gone with the Wind, and fold in a good measure of Out of Africa‘s coffee-infused life on the plantation.  Then bring the mix to a sizzle in the mountains and valleys of southern India for over a century.  Tiger Hills immerses us in actual life-and-death tiger hunts, as well as in ceremonial festivals, exotic botanical adventures, and the ancient culture’s birth and funeral rites. Mandanna’s vibrant characters may start out in India’s dozing tradition-bound country villages.  But as some members of the clan grow restless, they venture out into unknown territory, only to experience the perversities of life in British boarding school, the squalor of India’s jammed, polluted cities and, in the company of other social climbers, they learn how to behave in a more upper crust British way in the society clubs of the Indian outlands.  Through it all, parents keep secrets and hold grudges, siblings’ rivalries fester, lovers refuse to limit themselves to the partners their parents have chosen, and life gets very messy.  Despite soap opera elements, Tiger Hills is worth the investment, because its characters are well-drawn, its dialogue overall rings true, and intriguing settings are exquisitely described.