Wednesday, April 26, 2017

EXIT WEST by Mohsin Hamid

Saeed and Nadia are young adults who fall in love in an unnamed city in an unnamed war-torn country.  When the violence claims the life of a loved one, they decide to flee through one of the “doors” to a less volatile country.  They travel to Mykonos, then London, then California in an effort to establish a new life but are always perceived as an inconvenient nuisance to the “native” population of their new homeland.  This novel offers an allegorical look at the refugee crisis in the world today and also a sidelong glance at the effects of climate change.  Unfortunately for our two characters, as their lives become a little less dismal and precarious, their love for one another starts to wane.  Consequently, they have to face the awkwardness of de-coupling after they’ve endured so much hardship and turmoil together.  Adversity magnifies their personality differences, as it causes Saeed to turn to his religious roots and seek out fellow countrymen, while Nadia branches out and embraces her independent spirit.  In any case, they are not dreamers seeking a better life.  They are productive people who have left behind jobs, property, and loved ones just to survive.  I did not love this novel as much as The Reluctant Fundamentalist, but I still enjoyed the author’s writing style and his treatment of some sticky current issues.  The poignancy of Saeed and Nadia’s inability to forge a sense of belonging in a foreign land is, for me, the point of the story.  The erosion of their sense of belonging to each other is sad, too, but also implies hope for a new beginning.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

BEFORE THE FALL by Noah Hawley

I don’t read a lot of thrillers, but I love to read a really good one, and this is a really good one.  A private jet crashes with a couple of billionaires on board, plus their wives, two children, the crew, a bodyguard, and an artist who may finally be hitting his stride.  The artist, Scott Burroughs, is a casual friend of Maggie Bateman, whose husband David, an executive for a conservative news network, has arranged the private jet.  Maggie has invited Scott and another couple, Ben and Sarah Kipling, to join them on a short flight from Martha’s Vineyard to New York. Ben, unbeknownst to Maggie at the time, is about to be indicted for laundering money from hostile foreign entities.  The plane crashes 18 minutes after takeoff, and Scott, an excellent swimmer inspired by Jack LaLanne’s swimming feats, survives the crash and manages to get himself and 4-year-old JJ to shore through sheer force of will.  Now he’s being pursued by the media, the members of which have differing opinions as to whether he’s a hero or somehow responsible for the crash.  Fueling the furor is the fact that his most recent paintings all depict epic disasters.  The format of this novel has its pluses and minuses.  The author presents each passenger’s backstory in separate chapters, interleaved with the aftermath story, focused primarily on Scott.  Some backstories are most interesting than others, but I get that the author wants to give equal weight to each passenger so that we readers can draw our own conclusion as to what caused the plane to go down.  The post-crash story, though, is what really drives the page-turning.  We want to know what the NTSB is going to find on the bottom of the ocean and what’s on the data recorder, but I also was eager to know what lies in store for Scott, who is savvy in some ways and na├»ve in others.  He seems to be the kind of person who expects the best from people but discovers that there are some unscrupulous people who see a conspiracy around every corner and want to recast the victims as perpetrators.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

A SERVANT'S TALE by Paula Fox

Luisa’s mother is a maid on a sugar plantation on a Caribbean island, and I had at first assumed that she was the servant in the title.  Luisa’s father, however, is the son of the plantation owner.  The father uproots the family and relocates them to New York, where they get by as best they can.  They are actually American citizens, thanks to Luisa’s grandfather, but Luisa ops to drop out of school at 15 to become a maid herself, much to the disappointment of her friends and this reader.  I understand where she’s coming from, though.  Her only real exposure to a better life is in the homes of her customers, and she can’t fathom reaching that kind of prosperity herself.  Another fallacy in her thinking is her fantasy that her island home is just the way she left it, and she harbors a constant determination to go back, perhaps even permanently.  In any case, the novel follows Luisa through an eclectic series of customers, who are all unique and sometimes compassionate but sometimes not.  One particular betrayal by a client drives a wedge between Luisa and a loved one but spurs her to action to break the unfulfilling pattern of her life.  Up until this point, I would venture that she has been living vicariously through her customers, and I think she’s overdue for realizing that she, too, can lead a rich life, with or without riches.  Paula Fox’s recent death prompted me to read this book, and now I wonder how typical it is of her overall body of work.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

ORHAN'S INHERITANCE by Aline Ohanesian

This book opens with the reading of Kemal’s will, and, as you might expect, there’s a mysterious recipient—Seda Melkonian.  Neither Kemal’s son Mustafa nor his grandson Orhan knows who Seda is, but she has inherited the family home.  Also, Orhan has inherited the family business, which, under Turkish law, rightfully belongs to his father.  Orhan travels to an Armenian nursing home in California to persuade Seda to sell the family home back to him.  We discover that Orhan is essentially oblivious to the Armenian genocide that took place in Turkey during WWI.  Seda’s story of survival and of her relationship with Kemal occupies the majority of the pages in the book.  There’s very little that’s surprising in the plot, and the genocide coverage is mostly limited to the experiences of Seda’s family.  Still, the story is moving and well told, and Orhan knows from his own experience what it’s like to be persecuted without cause.  Orhan may be the title character, but he’s not the primary character by a longshot.  That distinction belongs to Seda.  Her supporting characters are Kemal and Fatma, an elderly family member whose role in the family history becomes known late in the novel.  The story is tragic, but the author maintains a clear-eyed tone that educates the reader, as Seda educates Orhan, about events that are not widely known.   I have not read it, but Chris Bohjalian’s The Sandcastle Girls also addresses this forgotten piece of history.  Sometimes fiction has just as much, or more, power to enlighten us as nonfiction.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

NUTSHELL by Ian McEwan

Only Ian McEwan could write a novel whose first-person narrator hasn’t been born yet—or named, for that matter.  In fact, I’m not sure that his parents know that their unborn child is a boy.  From inside Trudy’s womb, our narrator, who speaks like an erudite adult, is the proverbial fly on the wall who witnesses the hatching of a murder plot.  Yep, it sounds like Hamlet, because Claude is Trudy’s lover, and he is the brother of estranged husband John, the intended victim.  Trudy and Claude are bumbling, would-be murderers, and, as best I could tell, they don’t really even have a strong motive.  Anyway, the novelty of having an in-utero narrator is very appealing; he’s listening at the keyhole of every conversation between the two conspirators and trying to decipher how this scheme is going to work out for him.  Claude and Trudy plan to put him up for adoption, and the baby expresses a clear preference for staying with his mother, despite her obvious lack of a moral compass and complete disregard for the health of the fetus; she drinks like a fish, and the poor kid can barely keep his wits about him, especially since he’s now positioned upside down.  Plus, living in another household might be far preferable to being born and raised in prison.  This book is very clever, with a cheeky baby spouting forth opinions on everything from wine to preferred foreign refuges for fleeing felons, with or without extradition agreements.  And Ian McEwan’s prose and dialog never disappoints:  “What’s said hangs in the air, like a Beijing smog.”

Sunday, March 26, 2017

THE CEMENT GARDEN by Ian McEwan

Four young siblings—two boys and two girls—left to their own devices are definitely a recipe for disaster.  One of the fondest memories of Jack, the narrator, is of an afternoon when their parents left them unsupervised to go to a funeral.  The kids had a blast!  Then their father dies, and their mother becomes ill.  The children play doctor and engage in other questionable activities (Jack stops bathing), which become even more frequent and more warped after their mother passes away.  The kids make the decision not to tell the authorities, for fear that the family will be broken up.  They are no longer reveling in their freedom, but neither are they showing any level of newfound maturity.  Julie is the de facto leader of the bunch, since she is the oldest, but she certainly does not rise to the occasion.  Reviews have compared this book to Lord of the Flies, but this novel about children running amok is shocking in a completely different way.  A High Wind in Jamaica also comes to mind, but this book is disturbing without being violent or even scary.  Published in 1978, it’s very edgy even by today’s standards, and I dashed through it, desperate to know the fate of these rudderless youngsters.  McEwan never shies away from a topic just because it is uncomfortable, and this book will definitely make you squirm.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

HARMONY by Carolyn Parkhurst

Alexandra Hammond is a frazzled mother, more frazzled than most because her elder daughter, Tilly, is on the autism spectrum.  The younger daughter, Iris, is the main narrator, recounting the family’s life at Camp Harmony, a camp for families with difficult children.  The Hammonds take a leap of faith, joining two other families who are also at their wits’ end, as camp residents, performing chores and helping the director, Scott Bean, run the camp.  Scott is a self-proclaimed expert on managing children like Lilly, and he’s not half-bad at it, until things at the camp start to unravel.  The irony of it all is that the kids he’s trying to help are the biggest obstacles to the camp’s success.  They make decisions that are ill-advised at best, but, under the circumstances, their choices, mostly pranks, have devastating consequences.  In some ways, Scott may seem to be selling snake oil, convincing sane people to abandon everything for a life in the woods.  However, we all know what it feels like to be desperate for someone or something to solve a seemingly insurmountable problem.  Tilly has been expelled from every school she’s ever attended, including those for special-needs kids.  Alexandra finally resorts to home-schooling, but Tilly is more than just a handful; she’s a danger to herself.   And that brings me to my only real beef with this story:  why do these difficult children spend so much time unsupervised at camp?  Tilly in particular is devious but probably doesn’t understand what that means, and Iris is only 11.  Tilly is obviously not capable of looking out for Iris, and Iris is too young to be much of a rational influence on Tilly.  In fact, Iris goes along with some of Tilly’s bad ideas, even aiding and abetting at times.  To me, both girls were mean and selfish.  Fortunately for them, their parents are very loving and forgiving.