Friday, April 29, 2016

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

Reviewed by Ambrea

In The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt chronicles the unfortunate misadventures of Eli and Charlie Sisters, the infamous Sisters Brothers who have made a name for their work as professional hitmen and guns-for-hire.  Now, working for a wealthy man known simply as the Commodore, Eli and Charlie are headed for Sacramento in search of Hermann Kermit Warm—and subsequently kill him and return what he’s stolen from his boss.

As they make their way to California, Eli begins to question their journey—he feels disinclined to kill Mr. Warm, unlike his more ruthless brother—and his brother’s motives for wealth and fame.  He wonders whether his life is the one he wants or the one he has been forced to take, and he wonders, can he ever separate himself from his brother and live the peaceful life he once took for granted?

DeWitt’s novel, to say the least, is not your traditional western.  Strangely compelling and slightly absurd, The Sisters Brothers is a literary oddity with a ring of truth to it that makes it simultaneously humorous and very, very dark and sometimes more than a little weird. If it has a heritage, it’s more like the old “spaghetti westerns” from Europe than, say, Zane Grey or Louis L’Amour. It's a western but there's just something a bit off-kilter.

More than a strange tale about a pair of bickering, violence-prone brothers, DeWitt’s book explodes with unique and off-kilter characters that are strangely likeable, like Eli, or entirely disturbing and revolting, like the Commodore.  Speaking of Eli, he’s probably the sanest individual in The Sisters Brothers.  He’s a compelling, heart-warming narrator with an interesting story to tell, a hatchet to bury, and a life of his own to live.  I probably liked him best because he had a streak of compassion that was totally lacking in his brother, Charlie, and pretty much everyone else.

Eli, more often than not, was the odd man out.

Arguably, DeWitt’s novel is very well-written, nicely paced, and genuinely suspenseful with intricate—if highly unusual—characters.  However, I will point out that I sometimes found The Sisters Brothers to be absurd or just plain weird and strangely melancholy, filled with murder, insanity, bloodshed, mayhem, foul language, and death.  It’s certainly not a typical western with the dashing, heroic duo overcoming insurmountable odds, rescuing pretty damsels, uncovering buried treasure in the desert or taking justice into their own hands.  Charlie and Eli are pretty ambivalent toward justice and the damsels involved are a little less pretty, a little more ruthless; honestly, they’re just a screwed up pair of kids who started in the wrong line of work.  While it isn’t exactly the most compelling story I’ve ever read,   it isn’t a bad book. It’s just not particularly exceptional.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Nevermore: Florida, Paris, Einstein's Lawn, and When Breath Becomes Air

Reported by Jeanne

The Thang That Ate My Granddaddy’s Dog by John Calvin Rainey was praised by our reviewer as a fun and funny read, though there are some more thought-provoking themes as well.  It’s actually a series of stories set in Florida, told through the eyes of Johnny Woodside, an African American boy who has moved with his mother and sisters from New York City to his grandparents’ rural home. Many of the stories have elements familiar to anyone who has grown up in the country, especially in the South, with extended close-knit families.

Kristin Hannah’s Nightingale has been a favorite for book clubs and has won the author numerous new fans. Set in France during World War II, it tells the story of two very different sisters who find themselves tested by circumstances. Vianne, the older sister, became pregnant as a teenager, married, and moved to the country.  Rebellious Isabelle was kicked out of a series of boarding schools and ended up in Paris. Each offers resistance and bravery in her own way toward the German invaders, and has been described as a tribute to all the women who worked behind the lines during the War.  While several Nevermore members had read and liked the book, it didn’t seem to work its magic on our latest reader.  She praised the setting and the ambiance, but said the characters didn’t ring true for her—a very important point in a book that is largely character driven.  She thought the book overrated.

Another reader felt his book was somewhat misleadingly titled.  Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn by Amanda Gefter is a memoir about the author and her father who bonded over science conventions, beginning when they posed as journalists in order to gain admission to a conference. In the intervening years, the two attended numerous conferences, speaking with some of the most influential thinkers in the field of physics such as Stephen Hawking.  Our reader enjoyed the book, but was a bit disappointed that the focus was less on the science and more on the personalities.  He did recommend it, however.

Finally, a reader had high praise for When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, a young neurosurgeon who is suddenly faced with a diagnosis of terminal cancer. In a moment, he is transformed from doctor to patient, and is faced with the need to determine how to best live out his life in the face of death.  This is a beautifully written book which asks a reader to consider life and what it means to live. This book should join other classics of the genre such as The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Glass Kitchen by Linda Francis Lee

Reviewed by Ambrea

Portia Cuthcart always dreamed of running the Glass Kitchen.  Like her grandmother, who founded the restaurant decades ago, she had a mysterious gift—an innate knowledge, dubbed simply as the knowing—that gave her ability to cook meals she didn’t even know she needed to cook.  But after suffering an unspeakable tragedy and several stinging betrayals by her husband and her supposed best friend, Portia packs up her life and moves across the country to Manhattan.

And she vows never to cook again.

She moves into an old brownstone on the Upper West Side, her legacy leftover from her eccentric aunt, and meets twelve-year-old April and her father, Gabriel.  Uncertain about her feelings for Gabriel—and her involvement in his daughters’ lives—Portia finds herself reluctantly drawn back into the world of cooking as she attempts to earn extra cash as his cook and set up a new business with her sisters.  But when her life starts to fall apart a second time, will Portia be able to pick up the pieces and put her life back together again?

Let me say up front, I loved The Glass Kitchen.  I loved everything about Linda Francis Lee’s novel:  characters, story, pace, tone—everything.  The descriptions were wonderful, luscious and full of food imagery that connected with me on a personal level.  I love food, so I just couldn’t help but love that Portia likens all of her experiences and emotions to food, since that’s what she knows best with her inexplicable knowing.  I thought the author did an excellent job of connecting the dots and appealing to my enjoyment of food, especially Southern food.

I also loved Portia’s mysterious family gift, her magical sense of knowing.  It immediately brings to mind Sarah Addison Allen and her style of writing:  vibrant, fun, and threaded with a little bit of magic that makes the novel shine just a little bit brighter.  Portia’s knowing adds an element of adventure and complexity to the novel, adding a special spark that makes The Glass Kitchen that much more enjoyable.  It’s a relatable story about turning over a new leaf, starting over and picking up the pieces, but it has that hint of magic that makes it whimsical without being overly fantastical.

And I enjoyed watching the progression of the sisters’ relationship.  Their interactions seem genuine:  Olivia, Rose, and Portia fight and fuss, but, ultimately, they forgive one another and make up.  They’re family, so it’s only natural that they disagree, that they’re brutally honest (which can sometimes hurt) and grumpy, but they love one another—and that’s what matters most in the end.  It’s such a sweet dynamic, because it’s just the sort of easy relationship that siblings can hope to have.

Overall, I loved reading The Glass Kitchen.  It hit all the right notes for me, bringing together all the qualities I love in a narrative and telling it in a compelling, beautiful way that keeps me hooked from cover to cover.  It is a bit of an odd story and tragedy is an integral part of it—between Portia’s very public divorce and a very personal loss that scarred her emotionally and physically, Portia can’t seem to catch a break—but I definitely enjoyed reading this novel.  I simply can’t wait to read more by Linda Francis Lee.