Ahhh…Summer, the Time of Beach Reads!

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Today’s Top Ten Tuesday Topic:
Ahhh…Summer, the Time of Beach Reads!

1.  The Blue Bistro by Elin Hilderbrand.  Set on Nantucket Island, as many of her books are, this is a sweet story involving (primarily) the restaurant staff of this popular eatery.  Perfect for a quick summer read.

2.  Home to Italy by Peter Pezzelli.  This is the first book I read by Pezzelli, and I was not disappointed.  It starts in Rhode Island with the death of Anna, Peppi’s wife, but it quickly transitions to Italy as he returns to the land of his birth, reconnects with an old friend, and falls in love again.  It’s predictable, but after a but of a herky-jerky start, Pezzelli settles into a quick & easy style that is perfect for a day at the beach.

3.  Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons by Lorna Landvik.  As with most (or all?) of her books, this one is set in Minnesota, and centers around a group of women living on the same street who decide to start a book club.   It evolves to much more than that, of course, and though the arc of the story is fairly predictable, it is well written and has a lot meat on the bones.  Landvik has an writing style that makes for a fast, easy and enjoyable read, perfect for the beach.

5.  Bitsy’s Bait and BBQ by Pamela Morsi.  I was drawn to this book by the eye-catching title, and found it to be exactly the right thing for a summer read.  It is set in the South, a setting I love, and it has the predictable love story.  However, the writing is engaging and the characters are loveable, so it makes for a delightful read.

6.  Between, Georgia by Joshilyn Jackson.  This was Jackson’s debut novel, but the unusual title suggested right away that it would be a book worth reading.  I was not disappointed.  This is a Southern author whose works I love, and because characters reappear from time to time in different books, this first novel is the ideal place to start.  It is a quick and easy read, but truly enjoyable on every level.

7.  The Last Beach Bungalow by Jennie Nash.  A beach setting, which (obviously) is a great beach read.  I think I picked this up because of the cover art, and it was a lovely, if predictable, summer read.  Great for relaxing in the sun.

8.  The Wednesday Letters by Jason F. Wright.  I love epistolary novels, and this is no exception.  It is the story of a 39 year marriage, documented in a letter written each Wednesday by Jack to Laurel, and it plays out for their children, who are home to attend their funeral.  Though it sounds like a downer, it is not, and it is rich with all the elements of a classic love story.  Worth the time, and great for the beach despite the subject matter because it is quick and easy to read.

9.  Sweetgrass by Mary Alice Monroe.  I have read several of Monroe’s novels over the years, but I particularly loved this one.  I love the Southern setting of South Carolina, the typical “Southern” way (even in the way Monroe writes), and the cultural issues that she included.  It has an authentically Southern feel.  It also deals with some heavy subjects, but Monroe does not have a heavy hand, which makes it a lovely summer read.

10.  Hearts on a String by Kris Radish.  A story that illustrates a grandmother’s anecdote about the thread that connects all women, it is sweet and fun and easy to read.  Radish always has some fairly implausible element to her story lines, but in the end it doesn’t matter, because she touches you, entertains you, and lets you escape from regular life for a bit.  You will not be disappointed.

REVIEW: Dreams of Joy by Lisa See

Kindle Edition, 336 pages
Published May 31st 2011 by Random House
ASIN  B004J4WKXS
4.5 stars
After having listened to Shanghai Girls by Lisa See, and learning that this sequel existed, I could not wait to dive into it.  I loved Shanghai Girls, and Dreams of Joy is equally mesmerizing.  See does a wonderful job of building on the foundation of Shanghai Girls, and moving the story forward in a believable and beautifully rendered way.

The research she has done in advance of writing about Communist China is evident in her descriptions, and in her accentuation of the disparity between the masses (peasants) and the elite (leaders).  As a reader I was heartbroken when Joy could not see through the propaganda, but I understood that as a headstrong daughter who believed she had been lied to about Red China, she had to see for herself.  Like so many young adults, she thought she was so much smarter and more savvy than her parents, when in reality she was impressionable and easily manipulated.  She thought she understood the world better because she was getting a college education, and she didn’t realize (until much later) that real education comes from one’s experiences.  I thoroughly appreciated Lisa See’s ability to create in Pearl Chin a woman (a mother) who goes after her daughter in spite of her fears, but after finding her, understands that forcing her back to the United States will never work.  This understanding does not come easily to Pearl, especially in the wake of her own life experiences, but it is gratifying that facing the demons of her past allows her to understand her daughter in a way she never would have otherwise.

There are wonderful, satisfying conclusions at the end of Dreams of Joy, and yet there are hints of a future story still to be told, and I hope the author will one day indulge us.

REVIEW: On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Audio CD, 10 disks (11 hours)
Published October 1st 2000 by HarperAudio (first published 1957)
ISBN:  0694523607
setting:  United States
4 stars overall /4.5 stars audio narration
Goodreads Synopsis:
This unabridged version of Jack Kerouac’s classic novel On the Road is  narrated by actor Matt Dillon.  The CD box set is beautifully packaged with black-and-white photographs of Kerouac and Neal Cassady, the real-life model for the character Dean Moriarty.
My Thoughts:
Having read a number of beat generation authors during my college years, I was firmly convinced that I would never again traverse that literary movement.  The bohemian lifestyle, days infused with alcohol, drugs and indiscriminate sex, and general abdication of any responsibilities are things that I find difficult to relate to and (usually) fairly uninteresting.  And true to form, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is a book about exactly those things…with no real discernible point…a meandering, loosely autobiographical travelogue of his (Jack’s) adventures and misadventures on the road with his friend Neal Cassady.
And yet, it is very much more than that, as it turns out.
It’s not that the subject matter is important.  It’s not.  Neither is it because Kerouac had some great epiphany during his time on the road.  If he did, it wasn’t immediately obvious.  Rather, it is HOW Kerouac told his story…with language so beautiful and poetic that you can’t help but sink into the story and soak up his magnetic prose.  Truly, I could read (or listen to, in this case) writing of this calibre continually, because like beautiful flawless music, it moves me & touches me in ways that something mediocre simply can’t.  At the end of the day, I don’t think it mattered what Kerouac wrote about (for me), it mattered that he wrote it exquisitely and made even the most mundane intriguing.
Perhaps if I had read this 20 years ago, the subject itself would have resonated more with me.  I mean, it is a classic young person’s adventure:  no responsibilities, no money, no ties to any one place, no set plan, no hurrying, no guiltridden angst at the hedonism of it all.  I’ll confess that at age 20 I longed for the feelings of freedom reckless abandon that suffuse this travel tale, but at the end of the day I was too eaten up with guilt and angst to have been able to truly enjoy the ride.  Kerouac was not. and while he did not have Dean’s completely unbridled exhilaration for every moment on the road, he did take a quieter, more observant joy in his experiences, which is over-archingly present through the book.
I doubt I would call it a must read as books go, but if you have an opportunity to listen to Matt Dillon narrate these poetic words with his perfectly pitched bass voice, don’t skip it.  He enhances Kerouac’s poetic language to a performance art, and it is definitely worth the listen.

REVIEW: The English Major by Jim Harrison

Audio CD, 6 disks (7 hours)
Published October 1st 2008 by Blackstone Audiobooks, Inc. (first published December 31st 2007)
ISBN: 1433246643 (ISBN13: 9781433246647)
primary language: English
original title: The English Major

4 stars overall / 5 stars audio narration

Goodreads Synopsis:
“It used to be Cliff and Vivian and now it isn’t.” With these words, Jim Harrison begins a riotous, moving novel that sends a sixty-something man, divorced and robbed of his farm by a late-blooming real estate shark of an ex-wife, on a road trip across America, armed with a childhood puzzle of the United States and a mission to rename all the states and state birds to overcome the banal names men have given them. Cliff’s adventures take him through a whirlwind affair with a former student from his high school-teacher days twenty-some years before; to a “snake farm” in Arizona owned by an old classmate; and to the high-octane existence of his son, a big-time movie producer who has just bought an apartment over the Presidio in San Francisco.” The English Major is the map of a man’s journey into – and out of – himself, and it is vintage Harrison: reflective, big-picture American, and replete with wicked wit.

My Thoughts:
Starting out, I wasn’t completely sure I would like this book, but honestly, it really grew on me. Jim Harrison has a amazing command of the English language, and given the subject matter of the book (a newly divorced, 60-year-old retired farmer who’s somewhat on the horny side goes on a cross country trek to see the United States), I wasn’t expecting to enjoy the writing like I did. Perhaps making his protagonist a former English teacher helped, but I think what really made this book was the brilliant narrator. He so perfectly captured Cliff’s voice, his personality, and his view of the world that at times it was the deadpan delivery of some of Cliff’s more hilarious hijinks that made me laugh out loud. I am not typically one who chooses books that are marked as “funny,” but this couples what the back-of-the-book blurb calls “wicked wit” with an interesting story and truly good writing, and that makes it a winner.

It also got me thinking that, contrary to my studious avoidance of reading anything that even slightly smelled of the Beat Movement, I might ought to reconsider reading On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Perhaps I’ve erroneously shunned it as being too artsy-fartsy for me. Judging from my positive reaction to this cross-country mission to rename the states and birds, I’m beginning to wonder if I’d like Kerouac after all.