After an 11-year hiatus, the Pulitzer prize-winning author revisits his most enduring character, Frank Bascombe, a former sportswriter turned real estate agent. Bascombe, now 55 years old, newly divorced, battling prostate cancer, has reached the Permanent Period: "the time of life when very little you say comes in quotes, when few contrarian voices mutter doubts in your head, when the past seems more generic than specific, when life's a destination more than a journey and when who you feel yourself to be is pretty much how people will remember you once you've croaked. . . ." It's Thanksgiving week, and Frank Bascombe narrates with an armchair philosopher's appreciation for everything from the route he drives to work to the grandest themes in everyday life as he navigates the highways and byways of the Garden State. His two grown children (his "reformed" lesbian daughter and his emotionally removed son who pens greeting cards for Hallmark), his Tibetan business associate, Mike Mahony, and his ex-wife Sally, all come under his highly entertaining scrutiny. Although the book could be criticized for taking pages to describe the simplest interactions, with detail that can be overwhelming numbing, the very notion of this novel is that the drama is in the details of our non-dramatic lives. The audio format lends itself to such expository story-telling, and the narrator -- who sounds like I envision Frank Bascombe sounds -- enhances the tale.
"Nineteen Minutes" is typical Jodi Picoult in that it addresses a contemporary topic. Like her earlier "My Sister's Keeper," which wrestled with the ethics of a "designer" baby conceived for the purpose of saving a life, "Nineteen Minutes" details the aftermath of a high school shooting. What makes the story unique is that Picoult provides the reader with enough background about the shooter Peter Houghton -- whose small stature and propensity for speaking "Martian" render him an outcast from kindergarten -- that we sympathize with the character notwithstanding the heinous nature of his crimes. Picoult, as usual, crafts a workmanlike tale, but there are better novels that address this subject matter, such as Lionel Shriver's chilling, "We Need to Talk About Kevin."
Pessl has not met a metaphor, simile or obscure literary reference that she doesn't like, and she liberally sprinkles her novel with literary and pop cultural references. This mystery/coming of age tale, narrated by the precocious teen, Blue van Meer, follows a clique of popular students and their glamorous and mysterious film studies teacher. Although amusing, the novel becomes a bit tedious towards the middle, but is saved by a tongue-in-cheek "final exam" that puts into question all of Blue's conclusions. The narration is fabulous -- the reader sounds exactly as one would imagine Blue to sound.
Having survived depression spawned by a painful divorce,Elizabeth Gilbert takes the listener on a charming journey of self-discovery and reflection as she enjoys pasta and gellato in Italy, finds God in an ashram in India, and learns at the feet of a medicine man in Bali (where she also gains a new love interest). Although I was skeptical that this could be a memoir that was a tad Birkenstock and carrots and granola in baggies for my taste, I found that I was completely absorbed by Gilbert's experiences in these exotic locales and, more particularly, by the various (and always amusing) people she befriended on her travels. As an extra bonus, because Gilbert narrates her memoir, the listener knows exactly the emotions she is trying to evoke, whether it is wry, sarcastic, or sincere.
This moving and powerful book, authored by a published writer in France who perished at Auschwitz, presents two parts of a planned multi-part suite which were recently discovered by the author's surviving daughters. The first, "Storm in June," relates the tale of disparate denizens of Paris fleeing to the countryside steps before the Germans. The second, "Dolce," depicts the German occupation of a French village and the strained relations between the soldiers and their reluctant hosts (some of whom were introduced in the first part). This novel is beautifully wrought, with profound insights into human nature -- greed, corruption, grief, fear -- and told with a sly wit and humor. Expertly read with just the right dramatic punch. As an added bonus (for those of us who are bereft of foreign language skills), was the opportunity to listen to a correct pronounciation of the various French names and locations.
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