Wednesday, September 11, 2019

THE ASSOCIATION OF SMALL BOMBS by Karan Mahajan

The irony of the title is that there is no such thing as a small bomb.  However, some bombings garner more international attention than others.  In this novel, the bombing of a market in Delhi barely registers as a tragic event, except to those who lost loved ones in the blast.  Two boys, ages 11 and 13, die, but their friend Mansoor survives, fleeing the market and abandoning his dead buddies.  We follow Mansour into adulthood, who is stricken by survivor’s guilt, as well as carpal tunnel syndrome, which ends his Computer Science studies in the U.S.  For me, however, the character development in this book is lacking.  I never got a good sense of who Mansoor is at his core, as he seems to morph from scholar to activist to religious fanatic, depending on who his friends are.  Nor did I feel particularly moved by the pain and grief that the Khuranas, parents of the dead boys, suffer.  They have another child, a daughter, but the father does not love the child, and the mother ignores her, becoming heavily involved in the comforting of the families of other bomb victims.  I would say that the author does a good job of depicting the types of loosely organized groups that carry out these horrific politically motivated bombings without remorse.  I certainly did not find myself sympathizing with any of them.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

FRESHWATER by Akwaeke Emezi

This book is truly weird, and I do not mean that in a good way.  Plus, the grammar is atrocious, with the wrong pronoun used as often as not.  (Nominative case should be objective case or vice versa.)  The book is about a young woman named Ada who moves from Nigeria to the U.S. at 16 to go to college.  She is mostly cut off from family and friends, and her body is inhabited by “gods,” including one in particular that leads her body into a number of sexual encounters.  The gods also serve as narrators, and I was never sure if Ada had a multiple personality disorder or whether she was possessed.  Either way, the book left me wondering if Ada had a soul apart from the demons.  She certainly has no trouble finding lovers, but otherwise, this novel does not have much of a plot, and Ada’s character, as I said, is difficult to distinguish from those of the gods residing in her mind.  I wish I had something good to say about this book, other than the fact that the writing is good if you can overlook the grammatical errors.  Near the end we find that some events in Ada’s childhood may have contributed to her mental distress, but I felt that the author added this information more as an excuse and an afterthought than as a substantive contributor to Ada’s issues.  If, in fact, the voices in Ada’s head are actually related to mental illness, I don’t think the cause is necessarily that cut and dried, nor is the resolution ever achieved.  Basically, I did not understand this book, and therefore I was unable to glean any kind of meaning, education, admiration, or pleasure from it.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is socially awkward but has a decent job in Glasgow, where she lives alone and drinks lots of vodka to get through the weekends.  Then a computer virus causes her to meet Raymond, the IT guy at her company.  The two become oddball friends, but Eleanor has developed a crush on a local rock singer.  She bears scars on her face from a fire but her sudden interest in the singer inspires her to cut her waist-length hair and undergo a makeover.  She may be able to conceal the facial scars, but she has managed to bottle up deeper emotional scars that ultimately lead her to question her self-worth.  We don’t learn the details of the fire or, for that matter, the horrors of her childhood at the hands of a physically and emotionally abusive mother, until very late in the novel.  Her friendship with Raymond, however, leads her to come out of her shell somewhat and meet his mother, as well as the family of an elderly man whom they assist after a fall.  In some ways this novel reminded me of Bridget Jones’s Diary, in that Eleanor is focused on impressing the wrong guy and drinks too much, and Eleanor is just as predictable as Bridget but not nearly as funny.  Actually, Eleanor’s childhood trauma is so severe that I’m not really sure if this books is supposed to be funny, although a number of reviewers have described it as hilarious.  In my opinion she is also delusional, with regard to her crush, among other things, and I suppose her delusions are a result of the horrors she suffered as a child, but I didn’t quite get the connection.  As for the book’s predictability, there’s only one remotely surprising revelation near the end, and I had to kick myself for not having seen it coming, as it mirrors a similar revelation in The Woman in the Window.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

LESS by Andrew Sean Greer

Arthur Less, a gay novelist, is about to turn 50, and his younger ex-lover Freddy is getting married.  The last thing Arthur wants to do is go to the wedding, but he also can’t bear to stay home.  The only solution is to leave the country, and he embarks on a series of junkets that will occupy him through his birthday and Freddy’s wedding.  This trip includes an interview of a sci-fi writer, a literary prize ceremony, teaching a class, and a few other adventures and obligations.  He soon finds that his publisher is declining his latest novel, forcing him to rethink its storyline and, more importantly, his own life.  Arthur is plucky and open to new experiences, and his escapades are humorous at times, especially when he is butchering the German language in Berlin.  He’s going through a very melancholy period, though, and then he has to take it on the chin for other things besides his writing.  Sometimes, Murphy’s Law keeps biting Arthur, but he’s a lovable guy, and his soul-searching is poignant and honest.  He realizes that he is better known as Pulitzer-prize-winning poet Robert Brownburn’s former lover than for any of his own accomplishments.  One of my favorite characters is Marian Brownburn, Robert’s ex-wife, who has a soft spot in her heart for Arthur, despite his having stolen the heart of her husband.  This is not exactly a page-turner, but Arthur just kept growing on me.  He never wallows in self-pity, and he takes advantage of opportunities as they present themselves.  His is a lonely journey, and I was happy to experience it along with him. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

THE OVERSTORY by Richard Powers

This novel is mainly about trees, but there are some human characters as well.  The author introduces the people in the first third of the book, and I was pleased that the table of contents provides a list of the main characters with page numbers for their sections.  Most of these characters’ lives intersect in a protest against the harvesting of giant redwoods for lumber.  In fact, two people spend over a year in the top of one such tree. The characters run the gamut—a property attorney, a video game entrepreneur, a college student or two, a botanist, and more.  They fall in love with each other and with trees and ultimately face consequences for an act of rebellion that has tragic collateral damage.  The real revelation, though, is that trees protect one another as well as the rest of the planet.  The people, on the other hand, are not always so protective of one another and eventually have to make some very tough decisions in the face of betrayal.  The primary challenges with reading this book are its length, its pace, and characters that are sometimes hard to recall.  The last 100 pages or so are the most suspenseful and have to do more with human interactions and failings than with trees.  The writing is beautiful and profound but often dense and even ponderous when the author is waxing eloquent about trees.  That said, this is an important book, as deforestation is one of the many contributors to global warming, not to mention more obvious disasters, such as mudslides.  More trees could in fact help reverse climate change, as they absorb carbon dioxide.  Even if this book does not inspire you to dissidence, I guarantee it will inspire you to look at trees with a lot more appreciation.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

ORFEO by Richard Powers

I wanted to love this book, but really it’s a little haywire.  Peter Els calls 911 when his dog dies, and this unfortunate error in judgment causes him big trouble.  When the first responders arrive, they find that he has a slew of petri dishes in which he is experimenting with bacteria.  For him it may be a hobby, but for the powers-that-be, it’s a big no-no and reeks of possible criminal activity, such as cooking up anthrax or smallpox.  What he’s really trying to do is insert music into DNA code, and I have to confess that I really don’t quite understand what that means.  In any case, Els embarks on a cross-country road trip in an effort to avoid arrest and revisit the past.  The book flashes back to how Els got to this point, and he realizes too late that he probably missed his calling in chemistry.  Instead, he pursued music composition, eternally seeking to create something super-original.  His quest eventually costs him his marriage and his relationship with his daughter when he reunites with his avant-garde collaborator, Richard Donner.  The project in question is an opera whose theme coincides with the Waco debacle, which takes place right before opening night.  This book has some good moments, and the writing is beautiful, but it’s a bit too cerebral for me.  As for the music angle, I think this book is a too technical for the average reader, and most people probably think that music is something to be listened to for its beauty or for the emotions or awe that the listener experiences.  There’s a lot of analysis here that seems unnecessary and even burdening to some degree.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

VISIBLE EMPIRE by Hannah Pittard

This novel takes place against the backdrop of a real event—a 1962 plane crash in which over 100 wealthy Atlanta art patrons perished.  Civil rights issues also figure largely into the plot, and one of the main characters is Piedmont Dobbs, a young black man whose life changes radically after he drives two intoxicated white men to a private airplane hangar near Athens, GA.  One of those white men is Robert Tucker, a newspaper editor whose young mistress was aboard the ill-fated flight.  He is despondent over her death and abandons his pregnant wife Lily, whose parents died in the crash and who now finds herself penniless.  I found the writing to be adequate and the storyline to be captivating, although perhaps a little far-fetched.  Due to some rather odd circumstances, Piedmont and Lily become acquainted and bail each other out of difficult situations.  Having lived in Atlanta for over 30 years, although not in 1962, I enjoyed revisiting some of the area surrounding the governor’s mansion, which was occupied by segregationist Ernest Vandiver in 1962.  Ivan Allen was mayor of Atlanta at the time, and he favored integration.  He is a lesser character in the book, who has a difficult time comforting his wife Lulu, who, at least in this novel, becomes severely depressed in the aftermath of the plane crash, which killed so many friends and prominent Atlantans.  Coincidentally or not, the Allens’ oldest son committed suicide at the age of 53.  This was a fast read and somewhat light, despite the weighty subject matter.  It’s hard for me to say whether it would appeal to someone without an Atlanta connection.