Sunday, October 15, 2017

WISH YOU WERE HERE by Graham Swift

One review called this novel “emotionally gripping.”  I would call it emotionally restrained, to say the least.  The novel is largely about a dairy farming family in England, devastated by the mandated killing of all their perfectly healthy cattle, due to an outbreak of mad-cow disease.  The mother in the family dies young, leaving two sons, Jack and Tom, and their father Michael.  The younger son, Tom, is in many ways the favorite son, but there is no animosity between the two brothers.  After Tom joins the army on his 18th birthday and Michael dies, Jack and his long-time girlfriend Ellie sell the farm and take ownership of a caravan park (like an RV campground) on the Isle of Wight.  I’m not sure what the primary theme is here, but I would guess it’s grief, insufficiently expressed.  Tom’s death is sort of the last straw, as far as Jack is concerned.  Also, this is the second novel I’ve read recently where an ailing dog figures largely in the plot.  This novel is about men, specifically emotionally stifled men, but it’s not the kind of thing I think that most men are likely to read.  Consequently, it leaves this woman reader scratching her head, asking, “What’s it all about?”  Jack is an ordinary guy who has endured tragedy and then basically loses it at the end.  Until that point, for which there is substantial foreshadowing involving a gun, Jack’s inner turmoil is understated.  The finale is indeed gripping, but the lead-up doesn’t really build to a boiling point.  Rather, it just chugs along, and then Jack suddenly becomes someone that we don’t recognize.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

DISGRACE by J.M. Coetzee

David Lurie, a university professor in post-apartheid South Africa, will go to almost any length to satisfy his sexual needs, including the seduction of one of his students.  When she charges him with sexual harassment, he is forced out of his job, partly because he shows no real remorse.  He then moves in with his daughter, a lesbian who lives on a small farm.  A tragic and violent event drives home the vulnerability of women in this society and sheds a different light on David’s role as a predator.  This novel made me uncomfortable, particularly with regard to the role reversal between the blacks and the whites.  The blacks have the power, and the whites now find themselves in a world where they are not the bosses.  David’s daughter is more accepting of the new order of things, particularly the lack of law and order, while her father’s frustration festers.  Their opposing attitudes cause a rift between them, and I have to say that, despite his despicable behavior with regard to women, his point of view seems entirely reasonable with regard to his daughter’s safety.  His daughter becomes depressed but ultimately seems willing to absorb some personal losses in order to maintain her quiet life.  Is she courageous or just plain stubborn?  She basically has three choices:  stand up for her rights, accept the situation as is, or leave.  Standing up for her rights could cost her her life, and I think she feels that the whites deserve the treatment they are getting from the blacks anyway.  Turnabout is fair play.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

REBEL POWERS by Richard Bausch

In many ways, this is a coming-of-age story, as 40-something Thomas reflects on the year he was 17.  Back in 1967, Thomas’s father Daniel, a decorated Vietnam War vet and former POW, finds himself incarcerated again after he is court-martialed for stealing a typewriter and writing bad checks.  During the agonizing trip west to relocate near the prison in Wyoming, Daniel’s wife Connie and their two children, Thomas and Lisa, meet two shady characters, Chummy Terpin and Penny Holt.  These two, whose story sounds like a con, seem to latch onto the family, and one of them resurfaces later in the novel.  Chummy and Penny make the assumption that Daniel is in prison for protesting the war, and although this myth couldn’t be farther from the truth, Connie does nothing to correct it.  I would say that the principal theme in this novel is humiliation.  Daniel obviously cannot rejoin the Air Force on his release and struggles to figure out what kind of life he is going to have and what his role in the family will be.  Connie’s father helps them out financially, but Connie finds his charity to be a necessary evil and a source of further humiliation.  Young daughter Lisa just wants to go home, but for now home is a boarding house, and the entrance to their quarters has no door.  If anyone needs privacy, this family does, but it’s a luxury they simply can’t afford.  The fulcrum that the whole novel teeters on is a conversation in which Thomas overhears his mother express doubts about the future of her marriage.  This uncertainty makes for a very wobbly foundation for Thomas as he crosses the threshold into adulthood, ready or not.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017


The title character is actually the daughter of the protagonist and is alive only because her mother dropped her off at a Social Services center in China.  The unwed mother, Li-Yan, finds herself pregnant at 17, and the baby’s father has disappeared.  In Li-Yan’s culture, illegitimate infants, as well as twins, are put to death.  Li-Yan is a persona-non-grata in in her community and struggles to find a way to survive on her own.  With help from family and friends, she eventually becomes a successful tea guru.  Meanwhile, an American couple adopts the daughter that Li-Yan abandoned and names her Haley.  We follow her story as well, and even though it is not as full of adventure as Li-Yan’s, it is in some ways more compelling.  Haley, along with other Chinese adoptees, suffers from a number of societal issues in that she does not resemble her parents.  Consequently, the fact of her adoption is obvious.  Plus, she is darker and smaller than other Chinese girls in the States, so that she is not entirely accepted by them, either.  In any case, this novel is quite predictable and full of unlikely coincidences, but it’s a pleasant enough read, though certainly not a riveting one.  Again, to me, the discomfort of Asian adoptees in this country was an emotional issue that I had never considered.  That aspect of the book makes it marginally worth reading, but all of the pages dedicated to tea growing, drying, fermenting, etc., were not my cup of…well, you know.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

HERE I AM by Jonathan Safran Foer

Both father and son, Jacob and Sam, are in trouble because of words they’ve written.  Jacob, a TV writer, has been sexting a colleague from work.  When Jacob’s wife Julia discovers the texts on his phone, divorce seems imminent, and Julia becomes involved in a flirtation of her own.  Unfortunately, the couple has three sons, all too smart for their own good, of which Sam is the oldest.  Sam has been accused of writing dirty words during Hebrew school, and his bar mitzvah won’t take place unless he apologizes.  Sam, however, steadfastly declares his innocence.  Jacob believes him, but Julia does not.  The family’s problems are amplified when an earthquake in Israel has catastrophic consequences.  The novel also deals with two ailing characters, the family dog Argus and Jacob’s grandfather Isaac, a Holocaust survivor.  Both are well-loved, and their suffering is heartbreaking and problematic.  One of Jacob’s most upsetting memories is that of his father disposing of a dead squirrel.  This incident has implications for Jacob’s decision regarding Argus, who may or may not be ready for euthanasia.  Isaac’s quality of life is on the decline also, and many of us have grappled with how best to make a loved one’s final years comfortable.  As is the case with Foer’s previous novels, this one is very introspective and also fairly long, so it’s not for everybody.   Jacob, though, demonstrates his power with words in some very snappy and often hilarious dialog.  He is the focal point of this novel—a mostly good man but definitely not heroic.  In other words, he’s very human.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017


As historical fiction goes, this feels more historical than fictional, but apparently the author has taken a few liberties with the truth.  In any case, it’s the story of a legal battle between Westinghouse and Edison, and heading Westinghouse’s team is a young, inexperienced attorney named Paul Cravath.  This is largely Paul’s story, with an assortment of better-known characters, including Thomas Edison, who serves as, not just an opponent, but an all-out villain.  Cravath is an obvious underdog to Edison’s Goliath, but he enlists the help of some unlikely accomplices, such as an opera singer and J.P. Morgan.  The battle is for the patent of the light bulb, but a more important issue is the question of whether AC or DC is more desirable.  Edison paints alternating current as dangerous and even pushes for the use of an electric chair using AC as an execution device.  Nikola Tesla is the brains behind a number of inventions of the era and comes across here as someone on the autism spectrum.  This is an educational and entertaining read, never too technical, and not unlike one of Erik Larson’s books of nonfiction.  There’s something here for everybody:  romance, intrigue, suspense, reconciliation—you name it.  I guarantee, though, that you will never think of Thomas Edison in the same way again.  

Wednesday, September 6, 2017


While WWII is raging in Europe, Joey Margolis is a 12-year-old Jewish kid in NY whose father is no longer a factor in his life.  Joey begins a letter-writing campaign with Giants third baseman and all-around tough guy Charlie Banks, lobbying for Charlie to hit a home run for him.  Joey feigns an assortment of illnesses, but Charlie sees through his fictional complaints.  Nevertheless, the two find something in each other that inspires them to continue their correspondence.  Joey navigates his way through bullying, adolescent romance, his best friend’s internment, and his bar mitzvah, with badly-spelled guidance from Charlie.  For his part, Joey offers a chance for Charlie to demonstrate what a good man he really is, not only to Joey but also to Hazel MacKay, a Hollywood starlet whom Charlie adores.  Joey is resourceful as he investigates Charlie’s past and uses his ingenuity to get what he wants from almost everybody.  This is the third epistolary novel I’ve read (Vanessa and Her Sister, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society), and I’ve enjoyed all of them.  This one does tail off eventually into sentimentality, but most of the novel is hysterically funny, particularly when Joey and Charlie are discussing politics.  Several other letter-writers get in their two cents, but one of the funniest Joey’s Aunt Carrie.  She’s not a fan of Charlie’s, and neither is Joey’s rabbi, but both of them soften as the novel progresses.  And you’ll never think of Ethel Merman in quite the same way after reading this delightful novel.