Gina’s Reading: Clock Winder by Anne Tyler

Clock Winder by Anne Tyler

I love, love, love Ladder of Years, so I was really looking forward to another visit with Anne Tyler. I have a stack of her titles — Clock Winder and Patchwork Planet among them — and somehow landed on the former.

Hmmm.  I love Anne Tyler. And there are absolutely entire sections of this book which were flawlessly written.  However–and this is a huge however–there were 3 or 4 chapters which were completely baffling and confusing and even hard to follow.

Most of the narrative involves Elizabeth–from her perspective and over the course of weeks.  But in those 3 or 4 chapters you jump time and perspective.  The narrators are drawn from minor, previously barely-mentioned characters–so their suddenly being front and center made for a strange adjustment.  I had to re-read the beginnings of these chapters multiple times to figure out what was going on and who these people were.  Then to be further vaulted into a completely different time period–sometimes several years later–simply added to my befuddlement.

Okay–then the real kicker–in the final chapter, she not only changes time and perspective, she changes Elizabeth’s name–in conversation as well as exposition–to Gillespie!  Sigh.

I wanted to love it.  I didn’t.

Gina’s Reading: Not Me by Michael Lavigne

Not Me by Michael Lavigne

Michael Lavigne’s debut novel, Not Me came into my consciousness during lunch at Patsy’s with Ned Andrew’s Aunt Joy. Aunt Joy truly is a joy and lunch with her is worth a 2400 mile round trip drive. If I had the time, I’d even be willing to walk it.

Anyway, she’d recently read the book and couldn’t say enough about it — how stirring it was and how it made her think, really think about some things. She did warn me that there were sections in the book that were very graphic in their descriptions of the Holocaust, saying, “Gina, I had to turn some pages very quickly.” Knowing how well-read this octogenarian is, I jotted down the title and promised to look for it.

Fast forward a couple of days. Ned Andrew and I were at our favorite bookstore — the Bookloft in Great Barrington — and among the stacks, I spotted a copy of Not Me. I added it to my embarrassingly tall stack of titles, evoking the strongest of defenses to my wise-enough-not-to-say-anything-out-loud husband, “Aunt Joy told me I had to read this.”

Even so, I wasn’t sure I could. I do have a special place in my soul for Holocaust literature, but there are only so many gruesome accounts I can read and maintain my sanity. When we got home, I tucked into a bookcase for “later.” Well, after my shameful treatment of Bel Canto I felt like I needed to do some literary penance and gingerly selected Lavigne’s book from the shelf.


This book blew me away. Admittedly, I read it very, very quickly. In 2 days, to be exact. But I didn’t rush through any of the pages as Aunt Joy suggested I might. The basic premise is that comedienne Mickey Rose aka Mikey aka Michael Rosenheim goes to be with his dying father only to be handed a box of journals. The journals tell a very different history of Heshel Rosenheim than Michael has ever heard before. His father — reputedly a Holocaust survivor and tirelessly faithful Jew —  may have actually been a Nazi officer who stole a Jewish identity at the end of the war.

The present day scenes are utterly realistic and set in familiar-to-me Palm Beach County, Florida, (though Lavigne insists on calling it “West Palm Beach County” for some reason) which immediately made me feel like I was in a safe space. This helped as the stranger and more disturbing elements of the story ripped me from my moorings. I appreciated Lavigne’s careful building of Michael’s current reality in a book where the historical detail is so heavily researched and crafted.

The historical sections are beautifully written, though gruesome — as they should be. Heshel’s narrative of the past (told in third person, so you’re not sure whether they’re truth or fiction) delve into some of the more horrific aspects of Nazi Germany, seething prejudice, and the results of the dehumanization of an entire population. Just when you think you are beyond the worst of it, Heshel moves on to the battles to establish Israel within Palestine. There is no respite here.

The whole journey is woven together in a compelling back and forth between the two time periods. Lavigne manages to maintain the pacing throughout and offers some sweet pauses among the more disturbing stories.

If I had one complaint — and I do — it was Lavigne’s insistence on the overuse of similes in Michael’s narrative. They are littered around the book like pizza boxes the morning after a frat party. I actually started to read the following sentence out loud to Ned because it was so well said… until I hit the “like” and then I just groaned.

I stepped out into the parking lot and a herd of mosquitoes instantly materialized on my arms and neck, like pigs around a trough.

Oh well. It’s probably only bothersome to me. The ever-amazing Michael Chabon uses similes, too, but I get irritated with him because he’ll pick some seventy-five cent word and use it eleven times in the same book. The first 2 or 3 times, it shows how clever he is. The next half dozen or so demonstrate that his editor loves him too much to say anything. Ah, but that’s for another Wednesday.

In the balance, the book is a thinker. It poses some pretty deep challenges to our assumptions about good and bad and evil and redemption and identity and guilt and family and forgiveness and horror and empathy. I don’t know that it offers answers, but I wasn’t expecting them.

Thanks, Aunt Joy, for the suggestion. I can hardly wait for our next lunch date. Get us a table and save me a slice!

Gina’s Reading: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

I wanted to love this book.

I’ve carried Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto around for nearly a decade, giving it prime shelf and bedside-table space, and at least a half-dozen starts. In my most recent attempt I made it 72 pages before flinging it across the room. People I typically share book-love with have raved about it. It’s the book they compare other books to, as in, “It’s not a Bel Canto, but it’s worth a read.” It’s won about a bazillion awards — the Pen/Faulkner, The Orange Prize — and even feels like a book I’d like. I gobbled up Truth and Beauty — Ann’s nonfiction work about her friendship with Lucy Grealy — and love, love, loved it.


I just can’t read it.

So, in spite of the fact that I try to follow that adage of “if you can’t say something nice…” I’m going to say something here.

It may not be revelatory, but I’ve come to feel that books are very, very personal in spite of the fact that lots of people read them. They get under your skin and in your psyche and, much like an organ transplant, put a piece of the author somewhere inside your very self. My body is rejecting this title for some reason even medical science can’t explain. I read a ton of books, not all of them great, and I typically finish them. I don’t know what compels me to give a full reading to books best categorized as Literary Cheez Wiz, but whatever it is holds me practically captive when it comes to more serious efforts. Let’s just blame it on my wanting approval from my English teachers and move on.

At any rate, I’ve only decisively given up on a book — as in made the conscious decision to stop reading a book with no intention of ever picking it back up — twice that I can recall. Once was the day I threw Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell across the room after slogging through some 600 pages of it. The second time was today when I officially declared an end to my 10-year intention of completing Bel Canto.  I just don’t like it and I don’t want to read any more of it and I may even donate it to the library. So there. I said it. I’m done.

I’m so sorry, Ann. I feel like I’ve berated your child in public. I’ll make it up to you somehow. Forgive me?

Gina’s Reading: The Time Traveler’s Wife

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey NiffenneggerWhat a fascinating premise for a story. When I first heard about this book all that was said was, “It is about a guy who time travels and his wife who is waiting around for him.” My first thought was, “If he can time travel why doesn’t he just come back where he left off?”

Niffenegger answers that question and lots of others as she carefully weaves the “rules” for Henry & Clare’s time-warped romance. I enjoyed the elements of normalcy–cooking, eating, music, poetry, art, children, lovemaking–within this otherwise strange set up.

I did like the book and enjoyed seeing how the time device played out. I genuinely cared about the characters and appreciated their edges. Niffenegger does a smooth job of drawing you though the story even as you bounce all over the calendar.

I struggled with some of the continuity and the dropped ideas that were sometimes introduced with passion for a short while (the medical stuff that sort of gets explained and dropped, the old couple (why??) at the beach, the secret/not secret nature of Henry’s time travel.)

I will say that I was most unsatisfied by the ending. Niffenegger hints at what is to come throughout–so there is never a moment when you get to relax and enjoy any of the intimacy that forms between Henry and Clare.  I thought we would finally get it in the parting scene–but she basically retells us what Henry has already told us three chapters earlier. Sigh.

I know saying, “It is a great first effort.” is tantamount to saying, “Better luck next time.” So I won’t say that. I will say that I wish it were still in editing and it could be tweaked to be the excellent book it almost is. I wished this so much that I hoped that the movie adaptation would improve on it that slight bit. It didn’t.

All in all, I enjoyed reading the book. So, if you are not impacted by the same critical eye disease I have, you’ll likely love it.


Gina’s Reading: Louder Than Words: A Mother’s Journey in Healing Autism

Louder than Words by Jenny McCarthyI so appreciate Ms McCarthy’s offering her experiences in this format.  She is an articulate reporter of the reality of folks who are living with a kid who has autism.  In Louder than Words: A Mother’s Journey in Healing Autism, Jenny McCarthy has opened up her world–often a painful one–for our scrutiny in hopes of helping other parents.

However, as a mom with two kiddos with diagnoses on the autism spectrum, I struggle somewhat with the “pull them through the window at any cost” theme of this book.  It is tough for any parent to find that balance between acceptance of your child’s abilities and desire to help them achieve more than they currently are.  It is nearly impossible to walk that line when your kids have a diagnosis.

Along with the diagnosis comes a cadre of professionals, pseudo-professionals, and well-meaning passersby who will offer you free and high-paid advice, threats, and guilt trips regarding the rearing of your child.  Do too much and you are a “cure-bie” who is in denial that your child will always be this way.  Do too little and you are neglecting your child and missing the window. I suppose I’m looking for voices that find that middle space. I didn’t hear that balance in Jenny’s book.

Maybe I’m the one who needs a kick in the pants to do more for my kids. I’m certainly not claiming to be the perfect mom. I am pretty invested in my kids, though, and truly want them to be more than a fix-er-upper project. They will likely always have autism, so there’s a large part of me that is looking for delight in that reality — yes, delight — and not more angst about the diagnostic reality.

So, would I recommend this book?  Sure.  It is an honest, heartfelt look at one mom’s journey through diagnosis and early treatment for her son’s autism.  It is a quick read and worth picking up.  Is it the only–or even one of the first 10 books about autism I would recommend?  Nope.  Karyn Seroussi’s book was equally honest with loads more info to help you chart your course–whether that course includes pulling your kid out a window or just sitting along side them as they do their own thing.

In short, Ms McCarthy dearly loves her son.  She has a strong desire to help other folks similarly situated.  It was a good read and food for thought.  I’m glad I added it to my shelf.

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