Wednesday, May 16, 2018

ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer

I liked this book, but did I like it enough to read the other two books in the trilogy?  Probably not.  Four women, identified only by their occupations, have come to Area X as the twelfth expedition there.  The biologist is the narrator whose husband was part of the previous expedition but returned home as a shell of his former self.  Area X is the site of an environmental contamination where things become weirder and weirder as the novel progresses.  There are two main landmarks—an underground tower that some view as a tunnel and a lighthouse.  Both are very spooky in their own way, but the other members of the expedition are even scarier--an anthropologist, a psychologist, and a surveyor.  The psychologist is the obvious leader, as she has the power to hypnotize the other three into doing her bidding.  Where exactly is Area X?  What is the purpose of all these expeditions?  Why is the tower/tunnel not on the maps?  What happens when you cross the border into and out of Area X?  We don’t know the answer to this last question because everyone on this expedition, except presumably the psychologist, was hypnotized for the border crossing.  Certainly these questions are all teasers for the books to come, but I’m not sure if I care.  The movie might be worth watching, though.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

BEFORE WE WERE YOURS by Lisa Wingate

The subject matter of this book is so disturbing that it tarnished my opinion of it to some degree.  This novel addresses a time in Memphis history in which representatives of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society were kidnapping children and selling them to wealthy parents who could not conceive.  If these abductions themselves weren’t bad enough, the children were then mistreated while awaiting their new homes.  Corruption and greed are bad enough, but the destruction of families for financial gain is just unspeakably horrendous.  The author imagines a family in the 1930s that lives on a shantyboat on the Mississippi River.  They don’t have much, but they have love and they have each other.  When the father has to take his pregnant wife to a Memphis hospital to deliver twins, the “authorities” whisk away the other five children to an abusive orphanage.  The story of their plight alternates with the present-day story of Avery Stafford, a young attorney who plans to follow her aging father into politics.  A chance encounter with a woman in a nursing home alerts Avery to the possibility of a family secret that she feels driven to unearth.  As the book progresses, Avery begins to reevaluate the life she has chosen for herself, especially after she meets a handsome real estate agent.  Call me shallow, but I kept looking forward to Avery’s chapters, because really the agony of the shantyboat kids, particularly the oldest, is almost too heartbreaking to bear.  The prose in this novel is adequate but not special, and the book is full of unlikely coincidences, but it moved me anyway.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

CALEB'S CROSSING by Geraldine Brooks

Historical fiction writers should take a few pointers from Geraldine Brooks.   I like Alice Hoffman’s works, except for her historical fiction, which bores me to tears.  And Hillary Mantel?  Ditto.  This novel may be more fictional than historical, as Brooks imagines the life of a little known Native American named Caleb who graduated from Harvard in the late 1600s.  She also makes the wise choice of narrating from the point of view of Bethia Mayfield, a fictional character who befriends Caleb, as they both seek to know more about one another’s culture.  The storyline and writing are both excellent, and Brooks injects just enough early American language to make Bethia’s voice seem authentic without being challenging to read.   Although the novel has a lot to say about race relations, from an educational standpoint, Bethia’s plight is even worse than Caleb’s, as he has a chance at higher learning, whereas she as a woman has none.  In her own home and later as a scullery maid at the college, she learns Latin and Greek solely by eavesdropping.  Her brother is a lackluster student with no aptitude for languages, but Bethia, unbeknownst to her family, masters Caleb’s language as well.  The only learning that she is allowed to pursue is midwifery and herbal healing.  She does not, however, have to face the ostracism and bigotry that Caleb does.  They both do have to choose between family and opportunity, but Caleb’s choice strikes his people as a betrayal, even as most of the white men refuse to accept him fully.  He truly has to make his own way alone.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

THE INN AT LAKE DEVINE by Elinor Lipman

When the Inn at Lake Devine in Vermont unceremoniously advises the Marx family that they are unwelcome because they are Jewish, young Natalie Marx makes it her mission to get even.  First, she sends nasty missives to the woman who sent the anti-Semitic response to their vacation request.  Not to be denied, she then accompanies her friend Robin’s Gentile family to the Inn on their vacation.  It’s the 1960s, and civil rights are just beginning to gain a toehold.  When Robin decides to marry into the family of the Inn’s owners years later, Natalie attends the wedding and takes over temporarily as their chef, livening up the Inn’s lackluster menu.  After Natalie’s sister marries a Gentile, and Natalie herself falls for the younger son of the Inn’s family, we find that her family has hangups of their own about marriage outside their faith.  Natalie’s parents do everything in their power to thwart the budding relationship.  Despite the weighty theme of bigotry that pervades the conflicts in the story, this novel is still light and airy and just plain fun.  I found it to be a very welcome break from boring historical fiction and bulky family sagas.  Call it chick lit if you must, but it lacks the gut-wrenching, hand-wringing difficulties that so many chick lit authors feel bound to address.  The author obviously champions the sentiment that Natalie emphasizes in one of her letters to the Inn:  she still believes that people are basically good.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

ISABEL'S BED by Elinor Lipman

After having struggled through several books lately that were challenging in either length or format, I enjoyed reading something light and lively for a change.  Harriet’s bagel-baking boyfriend of 12 years has just dumped her, but she has just landed a job as a ghostwriter for a headline-grabbing memoir.  Nan VanVleet shot and killed her husband Guy when she discovered him in bed with his gorgeous and voluptuous mistress, Isabel.  Isabel hires Harriet to write her story, and Harriet moves in with Isabel and Isabel’s estranged-husband-in-residence, Costas, near Provincetown on Cape Cod.  Handyman and general errand boy Pete also lives there.  If this sounds like a soap opera in the making, let me just add that Nan and Guy’s son Perry VanVleet is in fact a soap star.   Nan herself has copped a plea to temporary insanity and wants to write her own tell-all memoir.  This is a juicy confection, but my only complaint is that it’s not really that juicy.  In fact, it’s really very tame, even though Harriet’s writers’ group always demands more sex from one another’s fiction.  One thing I do like about it is that there’s more dialog than narrative, and the dialog is mostly between Harriet and Isabel, as one would expect of a ghostwriter and her client.  The big question is who will be Harriet’s love interest:  the jilting boyfriend Kenny, Ferris from her old writers’ group, Costas, Pete, Perry, or some other interloper. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

SHADOW COUNTRY by Peter Matthiessen

Too many characters and too many pages.  That’s my assessment of this ponderous 2008 National Book Award winner.  Each chapter of Book I has a first-person narrator, and I could not keep them or their families or their location in southwest Florida straight, even with the map provided.  The story takes place primarily in an area called the Ten Thousand Islands between the late 1800s and early 1900s.  The main character is Edgar Watson, an imposing but affable man who may also have committed and gotten away with several murders.  He’s a crack shot, and everyone wants to stay on his good side.  I had a hard time just trying to keep up with his wives, mistresses, and offspring.  Book II is a little easier to follow, with third person narration.  Lucius, Watson’s son, is on a mission to set the record straight by penning a biography of his father.  The third and final section is Edgar Watson’s first person narrative in which he defends some of his more heinous actions and shrugs off the rest.  A strange but lethal combination of heartbreak and ambition is his undoing, along with a penchant for hiring known murderers as foremen.  He is unjustly accused of several murders early in life but then seems bent on living up to his undeserved reputation.  He’s smart, resilient, and full of life, but this book is not lively at all.  It paints a bleak picture of life in that area at that time, complete with rampant racism, senseless eradication of wildlife, unbridled violence in the name of progress, and widespread alcoholism.  I appreciate the realism and the writing style, but the novel just crawls along at a snail’s (or alligator’s) pace.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng

Do all teenagers cheat and lie?  In this novel, most of them do, and the parents are not that truthful, either, for that matter.  This book is the story of the collision of two families.  The first is the Richardsons, a very affluent family in the planned community of Shaker Heights, near Cleveland.  Their fragile utopia is disrupted, mostly in a positive way, by the arrival of Mia and her daughter Pearl who move into Richardsons’ rental property nearby.  Mia is a talented artist who works odd jobs to get by, and Pearl’s father is not in the picture.  The Richardsons have 4 teenage children:  Lexie, who is a popular senior hoping for acceptance to Yale; Trip, a handsome but shallow athlete; Moody, one of the few characters who is not dishonest; and Izzy, the misfit.  Hormones are raging, and the kids are pairing off, with the resulting jealousies and teen pregnancies coming as no surprise.  Mia’s backstory, however, is the most interesting section of the book and at the same time reminded me that this book is fiction, because her history is a little far-fetched, in my opinion.  I also didn’t understand why she is estranged from her family.  There’s also a side story about the adoption of a Chinese baby by a third family, and this aspect felt very familiar, as I recently read Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran, which dealt with the adoption of a Mexican baby.  In both cases, the birth mother is still alive and wants her child back.  In this novel, the adoption conflict seems unnecessary and is sort of a distraction.  The adopting family has such a small role in the novel that the parents are not fully developed characters.  However, during the custody hearing, the mother’s testimony, which was not entirely helpful to her cause, endeared me to her, as she struggled to describe how she would expose her daughter to Chinese culture.  I just wish that the teenagers in this novel could have been half as honest and worthy of my sympathy.