Wednesday, March 25, 2015

TO RISE AGAIN AT A DECENT HOUR by Joshua Ferris

This novel makes dentistry seem like the grossest profession on the planet, and maybe it is.  Paul O’Rourke’s practice has no internet presence, until some unknown entity creates a fairly comprehensive website for him.  The only problem is that Paul did not instigate the creation of this site and certainly does not approve of it.  This is not a book of action so much as it is a book of conversation and contemplation, as O’Rourke makes it his mission to uncover the identity and the purpose of the organization or person who has become his unwelcome avatar.   Before you know it, someone is tweeting on Paul’s behalf and even emailing him.  The novelty of this unlikely identity theft (who would go to this much trouble?) begins to wear thin as Paul become increasingly obsessed with unearthing the culprit.  Paul soon discovers that his heritage is not Irish, as his last name would imply, but in fact he is possibly one of the few descendants of a persecuted ethnic group, the Ulms, whose “religion” was to doubt the existence of God.  I liked this novel, but I became a little weary of the history of the Ulms, and I think his first novel, Then We Came to the End, is superior.  Paul is basically a loner, with no life beyond work and watching the Red Sox on TV, so that this unwanted internet activity at least gives him something else to do.  The women in his office—his assistant Abby, his hygienist Mrs. Convoy, and his office manager and former girlfriend Connie—make for a colorful trio, alongside Paul’s dreary personality.   The book is laugh-out-loud funny from time to time, especially in the beginning, but the author’s descriptions of the insides of people’s mouths are often yucky.  Paul has some pretty quirky patients, but my favorite is the guy who declines to have his cavities filled because he just doesn’t feel like he needs to.  There’s also the very successful guy, who comes in at the behest of his boss and coworkers, because his dental health has become so repugnant that his breath has become offensive.   Eeew.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

THE PAINTER by Peter Heller

Jim Stegner is an artist with an anger management problem.  He’s already served time for shooting a man who threatened his daughter, and now he has a beef with a man who brutalizes a horse.  Stegner is a guy who leaves mayhem in his wake, especially when he’s trying to make the world a better place by eliminating a few bad guys.  As artists go, he’s fairly well-known, but there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and the public starts to really take notice when Stegner gains a reputation as somewhat of an outlaw. Stegner is appalled by his own behavior and the inflationary impact it has on his work.  His agent, on the other hand, is well aware of Stegner’s volatile nature and certainly doesn’t encourage Stegner’s altercations, but he’s not going to waste an opportunity to capitalize on Stegner’s notoriety.  A former alcoholic, Stegner winds down by painting, obviously, and by fly fishing, and the author devotes a fairly substantial number of words to describing the sport and the beautiful western streams and rivers that Stegner favors.  I found myself skimming these sections so that I could find out what boneheaded or brilliant move our vigilante would make in his efforts to stay alive, stay sober, and stay one step ahead of the law by covering his tracks.  As for his art, I have to say that painting birds on the tops of the heads of two little girls in a commissioned portrait seems outlandish, but then such whimsy is partly what propels Stegner into a hot commodity.  His work, however, becomes darker as he grapples with guilt and indecision over whether he should turn himself in to the local authorities.  Lastly, I love that Heller’s outdoorsman protagonist shares a last name with the conservationist and artist (writer, actually) Wallace Stegner, whose Pultizer-Prize winning novel Angle of Repose is one of my favorites.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

THE ARSONIST by Sue Miller

Pomeroy, NH, is a summer retreat for New Englanders who can afford a second home.  Sylvia and Alfie, both college professors, have decided to retire to their vacation home, especially now that Alfie is showing definite signs of Alzheimer’s.  Frankie, their forty-something daughter, is taking a break from her aid work in Africa to visit her parents and figure out what she wants to do next.  She meets Bud, a transplant to the area, who has taken ownership of the weekly newspaper.  He has plenty on his plate at the moment, because an arsonist, probably a local, has been torching summer mansions before the occupants arrive for the season.  We have then three major engrossing and intertwined plots:  Alfie’s decline, Frankie and Bud’s romance, and the mystery of the arsonist.  My only complaint really is that I didn’t particularly like how all of these situations got resolved, but such is life, I suppose.  Frankie is the main character, and she’s a bit elusive both to me as the reader and to Bud as well.  She makes it clear that she has no intention of settling permanently in Pomeroy, but then where will she go?  To a desk job in NYC?  Back to Africa?  She has become increasingly jaded about her work, as she has come to feel that everything she is doing in Africa is futile and that life for many Kenyans is a vicious circle.  In fact, some of the Africans starve their families in order to appear more in need of food supplies from Frankie’s group.  Her life in a compound in Nairobi makes her feel hypocritical, though, about how much better off she is than the people she is serving, and that dichotomy mirrors the tension between the locals and the summer people in Pomeroy.  Another theme in the book is that we often guiltily enjoy other people’s hardships.  Bub can barely curb his enthusiasm for the arson news, and Frankie is aware of the superiority she feels over everyone in the U.S. for her do-gooder lifestyle.  Sylvia is ecstatic when a physician confirms Alfie’s dementia, because now she can stop wondering if her suspicions are justified.  Now I feel a bit as though Sue Miller has granted me permission to take pleasure in someone else’s plight from time to time, but that’s probably not a good thing.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

THE GOOD MOTHER by Sue Miller

Through the first half of the novel, Anna Dunlap tells us about her divorce from Brian, her daughter Molly, her failure as a musician, and her family history.  She meets Leo, an up and coming artist, at the laundromat, and they begin a torrid love affair.  There’s enough passion here to cover quite a few pages, and everything moves along swimmingly, although Anna is barely making ends meet by giving piano lessons and working in a research lab.  Certainly Brian can afford to give her more money, but Anna wants to make it on her own.  Personally, I would have opted for a more comfortable lifestyle for myself and my daughter, but then Anna probably would not have hooked up with Leo, whose Spartan loft has no bathing facilities.  Then Anna receives an emotional punch to the gut that sends her reeling, scrambling to her grandfather for money, and completely adjusting to a new reality after her world has been ripped apart.  This turning point in Anna’s life comes as such a shock that I suddenly found myself turning pages at breakneck speed.  Sue Miller can deliver a powerful and devastating blow to her characters better than most other authors and then string us along as those characters struggle through an unimaginably dreadful time.  To some degree, Anna brings about her own troubles, with a little help from Leo, but we all make judgment calls that can later bite us in the butt, and I became engulfed in Anna’s suffering.  I can take only so many tragic novels, but this one is more about a woman’s very real effort to survive an emotional nightmare, and this story will linger with me for a long time.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

THE LOTUS EATERS by Tatjana Soli

The book opens as the war in Vietnam is ending.  Helen and Linh, both magazine photographers, are desperately trying to get out on one of the last choppers.  At this point, the relationship between Helen, an intrepid thirty-something American, and Linh, a Vietnamese national, is unclear.  Then the book reboots to 1965, when Helen, a fledgling photographer, has just arrived in Vietnam, trying to gain some sense of the war that killed her brother.  Helen may have a death wish herself, as she becomes more and more neglectful of her own safety, attempting to establish the fact that she can stomach the violence as well as her male counterparts.  One of those is Sam Darrow, older but not necessarily wiser.  Sam has a wife back home, but here he is an adrenalin junkie, with a long string of female conquests.  Linh is his assistant, and later Helen’s adviser and protector, who has served on both sides of the war and whose wife perished during the conflict.   These three characters are the heart and soul of the book, forming a sort of love triangle that is actually more emotionally compelling than the ghastly tragedies of the war.  Unfortunately, the violence and bloodshed, though necessary to the storyline, in some ways seem too much like a newsreel.  Plus, the other characters are so transient that I had some difficulty relating to them.  My concern was only for the welfare of Helen, Sam, and Linh, but only Linh seems to have any sanity where his own survival is concerned.  Overall, this was a good read, but I can’t help thinking that it could have been better if the author had built a little more suspense along the way and made the war casualties a little more personal.  Certainly, the author plays up the ambiguities of the unpopular war, especially Linh’s divided loyalties, but also in a character’s suicide, which may or may not have been intentional.  Also, I have mixed feelings about how much she gives away at the beginning before sending us into the past to learn the backstory.  Too much knowledge of the outcome diminishes the suspense even further, while at the same time providing a bit of comfort that we’re not going to lose everyone.  As for most of those that we do lose, I felt that their loss would have been more poignant if I had gotten to know them a little better.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

MADAME BOVARY by Gustave Flaubert

The notoriety stemming from an obscenity trial propelled this novel to fame, but, as you might expect, it’s chaste by today’s standards.  Emma Bovary, the second wife of a mediocre doctor, is bored and generally disillusioned with life.  To liven things up, she flirts with Léon, but he moves away before their relationship gets out of hand.  Next is Rodolphe, a wealthy womanizer, who leads Emma into adultery.  Their affair loses some of its luster, until Emma’s husband Charles collaborates with the local pharmacist to correct a stable boy’s club foot as a means of making a name for himself.  The outcome is so devastatingly horrific that Emma’s revulsion toward her husband reaches new heights, driving her to rekindle her passion for Rodolphe.  His ultimate betrayal leaves her distraught, until she encounters Léon at the opera and begins her second (and final) affair.  (Two affairs, with absolutely no explicit sex scenes, doesn’t seem very scandalous.)  She travels to Rouen for her trysts with Léon, under the pretense of taking piano lessons, but Charles is still none the wiser.  He’s equally clueless regarding the huge debts his wife is incurring and even grants her power of attorney.  Even if he doesn’t notice that her piano expertise has not improved, one would think he would notice all of the extravagances that he can’t possibly afford.  His oblivion certainly helps explain why he’s such an unsuccessful doctor.  He’s a textbook case of someone who sees only what he wants to see, and he worships Emma.  He is the true tragic figure here, beguiled by a woman who treats him like dirt.  Their daughter Berthe is almost a footnote, but she is another casualty of Emma’s misdeeds.  My edition has a foreword by Mary McCarthy in which she suggests that Flaubert knew several women who could have been the inspiration for Emma Bovary.  (Rule of thumb:  Save the foreword to read after finishing the novel.  The same goes for dust jacket blurbs.)  As they say, write what you know.  About the only compliment I can pay this book is that it was very readable.  That’s not to say that it wasn’t a struggle, because it was.  Also, I found the title mildly intriguing, as there are actually two Madame Bovarys—Emma and Charles’s mother, who, like her son, has a despicable spouse.  The contrast between the two women is striking:  Emma has the potential for a contented life but is too restless to find joy in it, while her mother-in-law soldiers on, making her own way, despite the burden of a dissolute husband.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A TRICK OF THE LIGHT by Louise Penny

I am not really an art lover, nor do I like to read a book from the middle of a series unless I’ve read its predecessors.  I made an exception here, and I’m glad I did.  Clara and Peter Morrow are both artists living in a small village near Montreal.  Peter has always been the more acclaimed of the two, but now Clara is having a private show at a prestigious gallery, and Peter’s jealousy is making it tough for him to be happy for her.  As if their marriage isn’t strained enough, now art critic Lillian Dyson has been murdered in their garden.  Clara and Lillian were childhood friends, but Lillian became more and more acerbic as time went on, writing scathing reviews of Clara’s work and just about everyone else’s.  A convergence of gallery owners, art dealers, and other artists in town for the exhibition all come under suspicion, as all of them have reason to despise Lillian.  However, Lillian has recently joined AA and seems to be trying to make amends with all of the people she has antagonized, and her fellow AA members are all possible suspects as well.  Leading the investigation is Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, who is a friend of Clara’s and Peter’s.  He and his right-hand man, Jean Guy Beauvoir, are both recovering, both physically and emotionally, from a horrific incident in a prior novel.  I wasn’t wild about the fact that all this past history kept coming up, but I guess a certain amount of stage setting is necessary.  The mystery unfolds at a measured pace, as we become acquainted with all the characters’ possible motives for murder.  The backstory of Beauvoir’s crush on Gamache’s daughter seemed a little trite to me, especially since he basically blames his prescription drug addiction on this unrequited love.  Actually, my favorite section of the book is the beginning, in which Clara is nervous to the point of panic about her solo show.  We soon learn that she is fearful of the reviews, regardless of their take on her art.  If the reviews are negative, she’ll be devastated, but if they’re positive, her marriage may be unsalvageable.