Wednesday, July 20, 2016

WHEN I'M GONE by Emily Bleeker

I read this book for book club, and I raced through it, just so that I could move on to something that I really wanted to read.  As a result, I didn’t suffer for very long, and, honestly, it could have been worse.  The writing wasn’t stellar, but then it wasn’t intolerable, either.  The premise is that Natalie dies of cancer but arranges to have letters sent to her husband Luke after her death.  Luke soon learns that Natalie has kept him in the dark about aspects of her past, and he, with some help from Natalie’s best friend Annie, sets out to untangle these secrets.  Annie is a character who comes across as alternately manipulative and wimpy, but then Natalie doesn’t fare much better.  As he gathers clues, Luke vacillates between anger at Natalie for her deceits and boundless grief over having lost her too soon.  The author throws in a good bit of conversation about the afterlife, or lack thereof, and I found this particular debate annoying.  I felt as though the author were trying to appease both believers and non-believers, and I really don’t like this sort of fainthearted fence-straddling.  Take a side, for crying out loud!  The author goes to some effort to keep the reader guessing, with quite a convoluted plot, full of red herrings and a few predictable outcomes.  However, there’s no real substance here—no redemption, no lessons learned, no self-help advice, and certainly no humor.   It’s basically just the unfolding of a mystery in a gimmick-y manner.  In fact, it’s as though Natalie wrote her own eulogy, full of confessions and advice for her bereaved husband, and then dragged it out for a few months.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

DID YOU EVER HAVE A FAMILY by Bill Clegg

Before I read this book, I knew that it was the darling of some critics, and that’s about it.  In fact, the title somehow made me think it would be funny.  Oh, man, was I ever wrong.  A beach read this is not.  It’s not weepy, either, thank heavens, but it is extremely tragic.  On the morning of her daughter’s wedding in Connecticut, June watches as her home explodes, killing her boyfriend Luke, her daughter, her daughter’s fiancĂ©, and June’s ex-husband.  An old gas stove appears to have been the culprit, but somehow most of the townspeople have shifted the blame to Luke, because he served a prison term for a dubious drug conviction.  After managing to get through the funerals, June embarks on a road trip to the West.  This novel is told from the standpoint of about a dozen or so characters at both ends of the country, all of whom have some sort of sad history.   Fitting all of them together into this puzzle of a book was a challenge but not necessarily an overwhelming one.  Perhaps the saddest character is Lydia, mother of Luke.  She has a lot to atone for, and now Luke is gone, so that she can never fully make amends, at least as far as her son is concerned.  We also have Silas, a teenager who worked for Luke.  The author dangles a tantalizing carrot for us, constantly suggesting that Silas possesses secret information about the explosion.  Silas is too young to bear this heavy a burden, and I was concerned for his well-being and survival.  This book has not only a staggering amount of guilt in it, but also a mountain of regret for words not said before it was too late.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

WOLF TOTEM by Jiang Rong

Chen Zhen is an educated young Chinese man in the 1960s who, with many other young urban intellectuals, goes to live with sheep herders in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, at the behest of the Chinese government.  Thanks largely to Bilgee, a wise old nomad who understands the delicately balanced ecology of the area, Chen comes to appreciate how vital the wolf population is to the continued success of the herders.  The sacrifice of a few lambs and foals to the occasional wolf attack is a fair trade-off, since the wolves keep the rodent population to a minimum.  The Chinese government, however, wants to relocate farmers to the area, and the wolves have to go.  I get that this novel is a condemnation of the Cultural Revolution, but it falls short in so many ways.  First of all, Chen’s obsession with raising a wolf cub is totally inconsistent with his reverence for the wolves and the grassland.  More annoying, though, is the author’s use of dialog to get points across about the protection and history of the land and the wildlife.  Characters sound as though they are quoting passages from an encyclopedia.  Yes, this is a translation, but I don’t think the Chinese would converse in such a stilted manner.  The book proceeds at a snail’s pace, partly because of all these sermons, and then the high body count for the animals made the book even more difficult to me to wade through.  Plus, I forget sometimes how important good writing is to my enjoyment of a book until I read one like this, which is not well-written at all.  The Kindle version is full of mistakes, particularly random repeated phrases that dangle randomly throughout the text, divorced from the sentences in which they originally appeared.  Bottom line:  The message is worthwhile, but the storytelling is not.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

THE HARDER THEY COME by T.C. Boyle


The opening of this book is a heart-stopper.  Sten Stenson and his wife Carolee are on a Costa Rican shore excursion that goes from bad to worse.  A couple of local criminals hold the cruise group at gunpoint, demanding their wallets and valuables, but Sten uses his skills as an ex-Marine to bring the ringleader down.  Back in the U.S.A., we find that Sten’s 25-year-old son Adam is a psychopathic survivalist who models his life after that of John Colter, a scout for the Lewis and Clark expedition.  Our third character is Sara, a lonely 40-something anti-government rebel who becomes romantically involved with Adam.  These two are the epitome of the lunatic fringe.  Sara doesn’t share Adam’s penchant for violence but neither does she try very hard to dissuade him.  In fact, she’s more concerned about the consequences of her possible guilt by association than she is about the horrendous things Adam has done.  Sten is no hero, either, as he allows a buddy to get him worked up about Mexicans buying food supplies in the grocery store.  In other words, all three of these people are a little hard to take and impossible to like, much less admire.  In fact, my only real complaint about this book is the lack of good guys.  The story takes place in northern California, and I know for a fact that not everyone up there is wacko.  As always, Boyle’s writing is superb, and he never shies away from controversial subject matter, such as a mentally ill person being armed to the teeth.  If the action and attitudes in this novel don’t raise your hackles and your blood pressure, I don’t know what will.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

WORLD'S END by T.C. Boyle

This novel is full of very wicked men of multiple generations.  The few good men are lost in the shuffle, and the women are pretty secondary throughout.  The Hatfields and McCoys have nothing on the Van Brunts and Van Warts of Peterskill, NY.  We pop back and forth between the 1690s and the 1960s, but nothing much changes during the intervening three centuries as far as these two families are concerned.  In the 17th century, the Van Brunts are tenant farmers on land owned by the Van Warts, and Jeremias Van Brunt balks each year when he has to pay his due.  In the 20th century, Walter Van Brunt manages to sever his feet in two separate motorcycle accidents.  And, yes, you can assume that alcohol was a factor.  Walter is basically a screw-up of epic proportions, haunted by the ghost of his long-gone father who may have betrayed Walter’s mother and godparents by skedaddling instead of going for help during a riot.  Some of these people are so vicious, the book becomes difficult to read at times.  Violence erupts over political differences, women, obligations to sadistic landlords, and bigotry, particularly toward Native Americans.  Probably the character who garners the most attention is Walter, whose lack of charisma is superseded only by that of his on-again, off-again employer, Depeyster Van Wart.  Depeyster, tortured by the fact that the Van Wart family line may end with him, follows in the footsteps of his ancestors, feeling that his wealth gives him the right to throw his weight around and crush anyone who stands in his way.  Two big questions loom:  Why exactly did Walter’s father abandon his wife and child, and what will Depeyster do if/when he discovers that his wife has been having an affair with a Native American?  The author fully addresses both questions, but that doesn’t mean you’ll like the answers.  My favorite thing about this book is that it mentions the snail darter, and I was a student at the University of Tennessee when this controversy brought the construction of TVA’s Tellico Dam to an abrupt halt.  I had no idea this endangered little fish had such a big fanbase.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

THE BOOK OF ILLUSIONS by Paul Auster

If the rest of this book were as fantastic as the first 50 pages, I would give it 5 stars.  David Zimmer has lost his entire family in a plane crash, and, after seeing a TV film clip of silent film star Hector Mann, he embarks on a quest.  David travels, with the help of Xanax, to museums around the world to view all of Mann’s silent films as research for a book.  Mann mysteriously disappeared shortly after the making of his last movie, but, after the book is published, David receives a letter indicating that Mann is alive.  Thus begins a new episode in David’s mission to uncover the truth about Hector Mann.  The downside is that I felt very detached from all of the characters in this book, including David, whose grief drives him to several suicide attempts.  Writing and some good old-fashioned slapstick comedy are his salvation.  The author’s vivid descriptions of Mann’s movies, two of them in particular, are the reason that the first part of the book is so good.  The plots are magical, sophisticated, and supremely clever, and I want to see those movies!  I imagined Mann, with his moustache and white suit, to resemble David Niven.  Zimmer and Mann both suffer tragic losses, but the silent movie plots are pure delight, and they save a dark novel from becoming maudlin.  I am also wondering to what degree, if any, this book inspired the movie The Artist.  John Goodman plays a man named Al Zimmer in the movie, so I figure his name is a nod to the narrator of this book.  There’s also at least one more similarity between the novel and the movie:  both are about a silent film star with a foreign accent, which makes the transition to talkies problematic.  In this book, the contrast between the man, “Mann,” and his enchanting film work is quite a feat for the author, but the real feat is the immense imagination that went into the construction of the movie plots and conveying those plots to the reader so brilliantly.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

TIMBUKTU by Paul Auster

Mr. Bones is a dog who understands spoken English.  His beloved master, Willy, is a homeless alcoholic with health problems, both physical and mental.  Mr. Bones doesn’t judge Willy for his shortcomings but rather judges everyone else by how clueless they are about a dog’s needs and wants.  When Willy passes on to “Timbuktu,” a euphemism for heaven, a weary and grieving Mr. Bones has to fend for himself.  Gone are the unplanned meanderings that Mr. Bones enjoyed with Willy.  He attaches himself to a new young human companion who has to hide Mr. Bones from his father.  Mr. Bones escapes this imperfect situation and moves on to a family that provides a doghouse and good eats but leaves him at a posh kennel during a family vacation.  Mr. Bones and Willy were inseparable, and now Mr. Bones is a different sort of lesser family member—a pet.  I’m not sure exactly how to interpret this story.  On the surface, this is a dog story or maybe even a buddy story, but deeper down I suppose it’s a story of unconditional love and loyalty between two individuals, regardless of species or gender.  It is obviously more than just an homage to our canine companions; it’s a statement about friendship and perhaps how life with a constant good friend, even if food and shelter are not always available, is more fulfilling than a life with creature comforts. For Mr. Bones, at least, the struggle to find love is a much more daunting task than scrounging for food and a warm, dry place to sleep.  I suppose we can apply this struggle to people as well, but that analogy only goes so far.  The ending, for example, was a disappointment for me, concluding with a whimper rather than a triumphant roar.