Review: Summer People by Brian Groh

Summer People by Brian Groh is the story of Nathan, a self absorbed young man (and I use the term ‘man’ loosely) who works part time in a library in Cleveland. His dad hooks him up with a job as a caretaker for a few weeks to the elderly Ellen at her old-money summer home in an exclusive New England community.

Nathan quickly discovers Ellen’s situation is more complex than he originally thought. She’s been through some sort of accident the previous summer (no one is very forthcoming about what happened). Consequently, her behavior and personality have changed, and her mental stability is questionable. Nathan’s not sure he’s qualified to care for her, yet he stays on for selfish reasons. He doesn’t have much to go back to in his real life, so it’s just easier and more convenient for him to stay on.

Nathan doesn’t fit in well with the rich crowd.  He befriends Eldwin, a pastor who is there for the summer to serve the community.  Eldwin is a former punk rocker with a drinking problem, a depressed wife, and a cute nanny.  They go on walks, go kayaking, drink together, and talk about life.

A college dropout with few prospects, Nathan doesn’t have a lot going on. He’s immature and insecure, seeing events and people only as they relate to him. He’s lonely and sad, drinks a lot of rum and cokes, and lies to boost his self esteem.  He exaggerates his abilities and minor accomplishments in an attempt to impress others. He’s socially awkward and constantly comparing himself to the people around him.

He’s not much of a caretaker either. He does just the bare minimum of what he should for Ellen. They do a lot of tv watching. They kill time by taking drives and occasionally going to the club to watch tennis. Once vibrant, beautiful, and popular, Ellen is a shell of her former self. Nathan is forever waiting for Ellen to take a nap in her chair or go off to bed so he can leave the house to see his “girlfriend”, who he believes he is falling in love with, but in truth, barely knows.

Things happen. A house burns down. Nathan gets the snot kicked out of him. He has sex with his love interest. A small boat sinks. There are a couple of love triangles, a fall and a ride in an ambulance. Yet even with these dramatic elements, the book feels sort of flat and one dimensional.

This is a frustrating book, because at the end, nothing has changed. Nathan hasn’t learned anything or grown up one bit. Ellen is still a mystery. I had no deeper understanding of the characters at the close of the book than I had in the beginning.

I think Ellen’s story would have been much more interesting than Nathan’s, with her failed romances and suicide attempts, her colorful past and boatload of money. People whisper about her when she walks into a room.  I wished throughout the book that her character could have been more fully imagined and developed. Summer People is Brian Groh’s debut novel, and while I think he has a ton of potential, this book never fully takes off.

Summer People is another book with at least two different covers. The one with the oars is the cover for Target’s Bookmarked Book Club. I doubt I ever would have picked up the one with the legs.

Which do you prefer?

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Highlights: Booking Through Thursday

Highlights December 27, 2007

Filed under: WordPress — –Deb @ 1:16 am

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It’s an old question, but a good one . . . What were your favorite books this year?

List as many as you like … fiction, non-fiction, mystery, romance, science-fiction, business, travel, cookbooks … whatever the category. But, really, we’re all dying to know. What books were the highlight of your reading year in 2007?

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It’s hard to pick favorites. My favorite book is generally whichever one I just finished reading. I don’t keep lists of books I’ve read (although I’m thinking about starting) so I don’t have that to look back on either. So, off the top of my head, and in no particular order, my favorite books of 2007 were:

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Veil of Roses by Laura Fitzgerald

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Winterdance by Gary Paulsen

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult

Moloka’i by Alan Brennert

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Which books did you enjoy most this year?

Whatcha Reading? Meme

I’m a reader who is always looking for a good book recommendation from friends, neighbors, people on planes, in waiting rooms, at the library.. wherever I happen to be. I find myself saying, “Whatcha reading?” several times a week!

In this meme, I’d like to know 5 things:

1. Whatcha reading?

2. How much of it have you read so far?

3. What’s it about? (in a nutshell! A sentence or two is enough)

4. What does the title refer to?

5. Would you recommend it?

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Here are my answers.

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1. The Kitchen Boy: A Novel of the Last Tsar by Robert Alexander

See the really interesting Kitchen Boy website Here

2. I’ve only read about 45 pages

3. Historical fiction about the murder of the Russian Imperial family in 1918, told by the only survivor decades later.

4. The title refers to the survivor in the palace where the murder took place.. the little kitchen boy.

5. I’m not sure yet if I would recommend it!  I’m not loving it so far.  I’m hoping it picks up.

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Please leave your answers in the comments here, or on your own blog with a link in the comments here.

I’m going to tag the following people, but would love to hear from anyone. Please, play along! I need recommendations!

KWJ Writes, Thea at the little bird, Beastmomma, Tara at Books and Cooks, BlogLily, and Patti at Displaced Beachbums… Whatcha reading?

Review: Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

Crossing to Safety, by the late Wallace Stegner, is an eloquent novel that explores the complicated nature of long term friendship. The Langs (Sid and Charity) and the Morgans (Larry and Sally) meet and embark on a 40 year friendship that is sustained through births, illnesses, job loss, cross country moves, career success, envy, generosity, thwarted ambition, and failure.

The story is told from the perspective of Larry Morgan, who, of the two men, is the more accomplished author, but the less financially stable. The couples meet when Larry and Sid, working together at a Wisconsin university, attend a party with their wives. The wives, both pregnant and due around the same time, are immediately taken with each other. The husbands also have much in common and have great respect for each other. The relationship of the foursome deepens over time and becomes more like family than merely friendly.

Crossing to Safety is honest and human. It unfolds slowly, meandering through reminiscences and meditations on what it means to be a writer, the power of friendship, the depths of love and marriage, and the realization that even your closest friends and loved ones are ultimately unknowable. No one, not even a very close friend, can ever know what truly goes on inside another person’s marriage.

The novel has at least three covers. The one I bought looks like this: 13777373.jpg

but I like this one so much better: 9780141188010l.jpg

It captures the mood of the book more accurately. Then there is this one, which I don’t care for at all:

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The title of the book comes from the following quote by Robert Frost:

“I could give all to Time except-except

What I myself have held. But why declare

The things forbidden that while the Customs slept

I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There

And what I would not part with I have kept.”

I’m not a poet and I’m not sure how to analyze that, but I think crossing to safety as stated here refers to what remains of a relationship after it is over, after death. If anyone can enlighten me on this, I would appreciate it.

Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1972. Crossing to Safety was Stegner’s final novel before his death in 1993.

I enjoyed Crossing to Safety. It is a quiet novel with no great dramatic action, no affairs between the couples or big plot twists. It is simply an extremely well-written, mature and beautiful tribute to enduring friendship.

Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver is the fictional account of the implosion of a family after their almost-16 year old son goes on a calculated rampage and kills nine people in the high school gymnasium.

The story is told in a sequence of letters from Eva, Kevin’s mother, to her estranged husband Franklin.  Eva’s letters are filled with raw emotion and brutal honestly.  She dissects her marriage and her parenting skills, or lack thereof, in great detail on a quest to answer the big question.. why?

The reader is given a glimpse into Eva’s sad life in the wake of the killings, which we know about from the beginning, and then leads us back in time to before Kevin was born. We see Eva and Franklin as a happy childless couple, how their decision to have children is made, and on through the birth of Kevin and, years later, his sister, Celia. We see Kevin become increasingly more disturbed and dangerous until the shocking conclusion and his eventual incarceration in a juvenile detention center.

Nature vs. nurture is the complex issue here. What role does parenting play in the making of a killer? Kevin, it seems, was born evil. A listless baby who rejects his mother’s milk, a toddler who doesn’t learn to talk or play on schedule, refusing even to potty train until he is 6 years old, a child who finds joy in nothing, Eva fails to bond with him.

Franklin faults her for working too much, for always seeing the bad in Kevin. Eva takes a leave from her business to be a full time at-home parent, but the behavior she witnesses on a daily basis from her son is alarming. Kevin takes pleasure in the pain of others, and does nothing to hide his sadistic nature from his mother. He seems to enjoy tormenting Eva from a very early age, while playing “Gee, Dad, you’re swell” with the oblivious Franklin.

It’s hard to imagine why, having given birth to the ‘bad seed’ and having such a miserable parenting experience, Eva would then go on to intentionally become pregnant and have a 2nd child. Celia, born 7 years after Kevin, is everything he is not. She is light, he is dark. She is good, he is sinister. . two extremes with no shades of gray. Is anyone all good, or all bad? This, to me, is the biggest flaw in the book.

Kevin does not take well to being a big brother, and Franklin, duped into parenthood the 2nd time around, sees Celia’s passive nature as weak. Eva, on the other hand, is somewhat vindicated by the birth of Celia. She sees that she really can love a child she has given birth to, and that she’s not a horrible parent after all. Kevin’s behavior gets increasingly worse. Franklin has an explanation for everything Kevin does, painting him as a follower and a victim. Whenever Eva tries to talk with Franklin about Kevin’s true nature, he becomes defensive and treats her as if she is a tattletale who can only see the worst in her son. I can’t conceive of a more clueless parent than Franklin.

The last 1/3rd of the book was riveting. The tension builds to a twist at the end so shocking that I actually gasped. We Need to Talk About Kevin is a horrible, amazing, disturbing, fantastic, imperfect book. I highly recommend it for a reading experience you will not soon forget.

Review: Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl

It took me awhile to write this review, because I needed some time to digest the material and consider it’s aftertaste before talking about it.

At first bite, I smiled. Witty, charming, pleasantly humorous, this was a book I hoped to savor. In Garlic and Sapphires, a memoir by Ruth Reichl, we discover the truth about fancy shmancy eateries as the former restaurant critic for the New York Times goes undercover at 21, Le Cirque, The Rainbow Room, Windows on the World, and more.

Ruth comes up with the idea to dine in disguise shortly after accepting the job at the Times. During a flight from LA to NY, she meets a woman who recognizes her and tells her that her picture is in every kitchen of every fine restaurant in Manhattan. Alarmed at the amount of information this woman knows about her, Ruth comes to the realization that if she is going to be able to judge these establishments fairly, they can’t know she’s there. Being well known can get you the best of everything-excellent service, the very best table, choice cuts of meat, the biggest berries in your dessert. Ruth was much more interested in the dining experience of the average person, the masses who would likely be reading her reviews.

With the help of an old friend of her mother’s, who happens to be an acting coach, Ruth takes on various personas ranging from flamboyant, raven haired Brenda, to petty, snippy Emily. Her elaborate disguises include wigs, theater makeup, thrift shop costumes, and alterations in her voice and personality. Each persona she takes on gets different treatment in the elite restaurants she reviews. This truly becomes restaurant as theater, but what else would you expect in New York?

The constant stream of lavish meals, continuous consumption, and ever more cantankerous personas grew tiresome for me to read about. Does every fine restaurant in New York serve a signature version of foie gras and crème brulee? It would seem so. It all becomes a bit tiresome for Ruth as well, who after 6 years decides to make a career change (with a nudge from a dying friend and from her son, Nicky, who just wants his mom to eat dinner at home now and then).

The end of each chapter has tasty-sounding menus that I am anxious to try. I found Garlic and Sapphires entertaining, but ultimately, it left me feeling hungry rather than satisfied.

Garlic and Sapphires
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Ruth Reichl is the current editor of Gourmet magazine.

Garlic and Sapphires was the November selection at Planet Books.

For other reviews of Garlic and Sapphires, visit Beastmomma and Care

What’s in a Name Reading Challenge

What’s in a Name?


Annie is hosting a creative reading challenge for 2008. It’s called What’s in a Name? and the six selections for the challenge must contain a specific element in the title:

  • A book with a color in its title
  • A book with an animal in its title
  • A book with a first name in its title
  • A book with a place in its title
  • A book with a weather event in its title
  • A book with a plant in its title

These are my picks:

1. A book with a color in its title.
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

2. A book with an animal in its title.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon

3. A book with a first name in its title.
We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver

4. A book with a place in its title.
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

5. A book with a weather event in its title.
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

6. A book with a plant in the title
White Oleander by Janet Fitch
A Hatred for Tulips by Richard Lourie
I’m new to challenges.. I wonder if it’s cool to read the same book for 2 different challenges.. can anyone tell me?