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Original Essays | July 24, 2014

Jessica Valenti: IMG Full Frontal Feminism Revisited



It is arguably the worst and best time to be a feminist. In the years since I first wrote Full Frontal Feminism, we've seen a huge cultural shift in... Continue »
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The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Wendy Robards, July 19, 2009

Renee Michel, concierge of a wealthy apartment building in Paris, screens her true nature from the residents she serves. She is a woman whose prickly attitude and appearance belies her love of art and literature, someone who finds beauty in a camellia and is horrified when a comma is misused in a sentence.

Paloma Josse, at age twelve, is plotting her own suicide before she turns thirteen and has decided to burn down the building in which she lives. But before she dies, she vows to write down profound thoughts in haiku. Highly intelligent and mature beyond her years, Paloma is fascinated by the beauty of movement such as a petal falling from a rose. She is also adept at observation…of the world at large and of her family whose dysfunction includes a depressed mother and a misguided sister.

When Kakura Ozu, a distinguished Japanese man, buys the apartment on the fourth floor of Renee and Paloma’s building the three are drawn together – people who appreciate art and simple beauty, and are seeking meaning in life.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog started slowly for me – in fact, I nearly stopped reading it at one point. But I persisted, and I am glad I did because Muriel Barbery has written an exceptional story about appearance, class, beauty, and the search for meaning in one’s life. Written in alternating viewpoints between Renee and Paloma, the book shows how an older lady from a poor background is not that different from a twelve year old being raised in a wealthy family.

The novel is rich in philosophy and thoughts about culture, art and literature. But it is the secret lives of its characters which drive the narrative and keep the reader turning the pages. Barbery’s writing is beautifully wrought and captures the small things in life which bring joy, wonder, and hope.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog was translated from the French by Alison Anderson. A sensation in France when it was published in 2007, the novel has won the hearts of Americans as well, which seems to validate Barbery’s theme that cultural differences do not preclude finding the beauty in simplicity. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a simple story that explores complex ideas and leaves the reader fulfilled.

Highly recommended. (4.5 stars)
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(9 of 11 readers found this comment helpful)



The Local News by Miriam Gershow
The Local News

Wendy Robards, July 9, 2009

Lydia Pasternak is fifteen years old when her brother Danny, a popular high school athlete, disappears. First he is there and then he is gone, leaving behind parents who are stunned into a drifting existence centered around finding their son and Lydia, whose ambivalent relationship with Danny overshadows her life.

Before Danny disappeared, Lydia was a bit of a loner. Exceptionally bright and physically immature, her best friend is a boy with whom she enjoys discussing world politics. But after Danny has gone missing, Lydia experiences a surge in her popularity. She is now the sister of a missing person – and Danny’s friends from the football team and the girls who flashed him dazzling smiles begin to include her in their social network.When Lydia is drawn into the investigation by a private detective hired by her parents, she not only begins to uncover the mystery of her brother’s disappearance, but discovers truths about herself.

The Local News, Miriam Gershow’s powerful debut novel, is a nuanced story about Lydia’s coming of age amid this one tragic event in her life. Narrated from Lydia’s point of view, the novel reaches into the psyche of a teenager and examines how it must feel to grow up in the shadow of her popular brother, her parent’s favored child…a boy who Lydia did not always like, but certainly loved.

Not only does The Local News examine the relationship between siblings, but it also explores the power of grief and how that emotion can define our relationships and change our lives…how a single event tainted with loss can change who we become.

Gershow’s prose draws the reader into Lydia’s life quickly – uncovering her strained relationship with her parents, her awkward sexual awakening, her fears and dreams…doubts and guilt. The Local News begs the question: How do we define ourselves? Lydia’s journey begins to answer that question, examining the development of the individual within the greater context of daughter, sister and friend.

Poignant, engaging and sharply imagined, The Local News is a book which will connect with anyone who remembers the pain of being a teenager. Although it is a coming of age story, it is also Danny’s story and the impact his loss has on family and friends. It is a loss the reader feels acutely. Danny is only known to the reader through the eyes of his sister, and yet by the end of the book I felt I knew not only who he was, but who he might have been had fate not intervened.

Gershow has written a very human story – a story which extends beyond the headlines and into the heart of a young girl.

Recommended.
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(1 of 2 readers found this comment helpful)



Malice by Lisa Jackson
Malice

Wendy Robards, June 9, 2009

After the questionable death of his ex-wife Jennifer, Homicide detective Rick Bentz slides into alcohol abuse and is devastated when he is involved in the shooting death of a twelve year old boy and unable to solve the horrific murder of twin girls. He leaves Los Angeles and takes a job in New Orleans where he gets his life back on track and marries Olivia, an independent and beautiful woman.

Fast forward twelve years.

While recovering from bruised spinal cord and upon waking from a coma, Bentz has a vision. He sees Jennifer - not once, but several times; and then he gets a manila envelope with recent photos of her and a copy of her death certificate with a red question mark written on it. Shaken, Bentz returns to California and quickly becomes embroiled in the old department politics while fresh bodies start turning up…all connected to him.

Lisa Jackson’s fast paced and newest thriller Malice hit the stores in April. The plot unfolds quickly and readers do not have to wait long for the thrills. This book is all about plot - not a disappointment to readers of this genre.

Although I enjoyed the novel (and it was a very quick read for me), it was not without its faults. There were quite a few typos in my finished copy which always annoys me. Also, at times the plot felt a bit contrived - things were not always believable, and the ending was wrapped up pretty neatly. In fairness to Jackson, this type of genre fiction seems to play on the edges of believability with the evil characters being really bad, the benevolent characters being really good, and the plots being a bit exaggerated. That said, Jackson writes this type of story as good as any, having written more than 75 novels and with more than 10 million copies of her books in print.

Malice is good escapism reading - a fast moving plot, lots of dialogue, and menace around every corner. For readers who like to curl up with a book of suspense and let their palms sweat, Jackson’s book is sure to please.
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(6 of 9 readers found this comment helpful)



Last Night in Montreal by Emily St John Mandel
Last Night in Montreal

Wendy Robards, June 1, 2009

Lilia awakes one night when she is seven years old and finds her father waiting for her outside in the snow. She walks out of her home and into his arms. What follows is a life of constant travel - moving from place to place with the sensation of being hunted, changing identities, and an inability to create lasting relationships.When Lilia meets Eli, a young man studying dead and dying languages in New York City, she knows she will eventually leave him. But when she does just that, the act puts in motion a series of events which will not only change Lilia’s life, but the lives of those around her.

Last Night In Montreal is a novel which intersects the lives of four flawed characters: Lilia, scarred by events she cannot remember but from which she constantly flees; Eli, stuck in one place and unable to move forward until he becomes obsessed with Lilia; Christopher, the private investigator who gives up everything to find a missing child and uncover the mystery of her disappearance; and Michaela, Christopher’s daughter who is abandoned by her parents and haunted by a girl she only knows through her father’s notes. The mystery surrounding Lilia’s abduction serves as the focal point from which the other characters’ stories revolve. As they are all drawn into Lilia’s life, they are forced to come to terms with their own weaknesses, desires, and fears. Thematically, the story is one about loss, repressed memory, family secrets and identity.

Lilia is a complex character whose life is not her own. She has no recollection of her years before the abduction and seems unable to stop traveling - a compulsion which allows her to see the world and yet not be a part of it.

'She moved over the surface of life the way figure skaters move, fast and choreographed, but she never broke through the ice, she never pierced the surface and descended into those awful beautiful waters, she was never submerged and she never learned to swim in those currents, these current: all the shadows and light and splendorous horrors that make up the riptides of life on earth.' - from Last Night In Montreal, page 119 -

Last Night in Montreal is Emily St. John Mandel’s first novel, and it is a stunning debut. Told from multiple viewpoints and moving back and forth between the present and past, the book is compulsively readable. Mandel’s writing is flawless - poetic, compelling, and achingly beautiful. Perhaps the strongest aspect of Mandel’s prose is her ability to fully develop her characters - people who are adrift and searching and often in pain, but who attract the reader’s empathy and admiration despite their weaknesses.

Last Night In Montreal is one of those books which once started cannot be laid aside. Disturbing and dark at times, it is a novel which will haunt the reader long after it is completed.

Highly recommended.
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(15 of 22 readers found this comment helpful)



The Laws of Harmony by Judith R Hendricks
The Laws of Harmony

Wendy Robards, May 29, 2009

Judith Ryan Hendricks’ fourth novel, The Laws of Harmony, opens in New Mexico and is narrated by Sunny Cooper - a 32 year old woman whose life is suddenly wrenched out from under her. When detectives arrive at Sunny’s door to inform her that her fiance Michael has been killed in a fiery car crash, Sunny’s grief is quickly replaced by confusion and then anger when she discovers Michael was keeping secrets from her.

The tragedy opens a floodgate of memories from Sunny’s childhood growing up in a commune - the drugs, sex and rock n’ roll; her close relationship with a brother who has since disappeared from her life; the sister she lost to a freak accident; and the strained connection she still has with her mother. On an impulse, Sunny sells nearly all her possessions and quits her job, heading west to a new future in the tiny town of Harmony on San Miguel Island.

The Laws of Harmony is a novel about personal growth, the impact of the past on our future, and the delicate connections we make with other people. Sunny’s journey is not just a physical one from New Mexico to Harmony. Her memories do not simply stop the moment she leaves the desert and arrives on the fog enshrouded island of San Miguel. Sunny’s journey from despair to hope and her gradual understanding that she cannot walk through life alone is what drives the narrative…and it is a compelling and satisfying story.

Hendricks is a capable and talented writer whose prose is filled with warmth, humor and a deep understanding of what it means to be human. Half way through the novel, I found myself immersed in Sunny’s world, comforted by the rich descriptions of food, and not wanting the novel to end. Although there is a bit of a mystery in the book, it is not the mystery which kept me turning the pages. Hendricks’ ability to create character is her strength, and it is the characters who engaged me.

The best novels are those which leave the reader with a more acute awareness of what motivates a character - and a better understanding of how a character’s life might parallel our own. The Laws of Harmony does both those things. The writing is accessible and honest. Judith Ryan Hendricks has written a novel which women especially will love. If you are looking for a comfortable and gratifying summer read, look no further.

Highly recommended.
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(3 of 5 readers found this comment helpful)



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