Sunday, July 15, 2018

THE ELECTRIC KOOL-AID ACID TEST by Tom Wolfe


They say that if you can remember the 60s, then you weren’t really there.  I’m a bit younger than the people in this book, and I wasn’t in California in the 60s, where most of the action takes place.  The main character and leader of the pack is Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion.  I loved both of Kesey’s acclaimed novels, both of which were made into movies, and generally I like Tom Wolfe.  However, this is sort of a loose biography of Kesey’s LSD experimentation period, and I wasn’t that fond of it.  One of the main characters is actually the bus, named Furthur (intentionally misspelled), which makes a cross-country trip, helmed by Neal Cassady, the real-life Dean Moriarty from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, as well as a sojourn into Mexico, when Kesey is on the run from the authorities.  The phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” came along after this period, but in some ways it applies here as well.  Kesey has sort of a cult following that drinks LSD-laced Kool-Aid at one of their soirees, but so do some unsuspecting guests.  Of course, if you’re going to a Pranksters party and don’t expect LSD to be floating around, then you must have been totally out of touch and you wouldn’t have been at the party in the first place.  Apparently, Kesey was a very charismatic man, but his charm did not come through on the page for me.  I did find it fascinating how these great writers found each other:  Kesey, Wolfe, Larry McMurtry, and others.  Wolfe mentions Kerouac only in connection with Cassady, and although I didn’t love this book, Wolfe is a way better writer than Kerouac, in my opinion, and Wolfe steers clear of language that would make the book feel dated.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

THE SILENT SISTER by Diane Chamberlain

Riley, now in her twenties, was two years old when her sister Lisa, a 17-year-old violin prodigy with a very promising future, apparently committed suicide.  Riley’s mother never really recovered from the loss of her daughter and predeceased Riley’s father, who has just died.   Spending the summer going through all the stuff in the house where she grew up, Riley uncovers some surprising facts about her family and what may have prompted Lisa to take her own life.  New mysteries keep cropping up, as Riley tries to connect with her brother Danny, who suffers from PTSD and harbors ill feelings toward all of their family members who are no longer alive.  Their father owned an RV park, and left his pipe collection to a married couple, Verniece and Tom Kyle, in residence there, who may be able to help unravel some of the family mysteries, if Riley can bear Tom’s puzzling animosity.  Riley’s shifting reality makes her somewhat impulsive and not always rational, but Danny is even less rational, and I never really did figure out why he was so angry with their parents.  For me, he was the most difficult character to relate to.  If anything, the truth about what happened with Lisa should have made him irate, whereas Lisa’s apparent suicide should have made him sympathetic toward his parents.  I think this novel works better as a dysfunctional family saga than as a mystery, as I found some of the twists and turns to be not wholly unexpected.  I enjoyed the book, but there was nothing particularly special about it.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

EVENTIDE by Kent Haruf

I was afraid that this sequel to Plainsong would not live up to the standard set by its predecessor, but it absolutely does.  Cattle ranchers Raymond and Harold are back, and their ward, Victoria, is off to college with her young daughter Katie.  The two men have to adapt to having only one another’s company again, and then tragedy strikes.  In another household we have Luther and Betty and their two children, living in a trailer on welfare.  Betty’s Uncle Hoyt comes to live with them, and he is very bad news, but Luther and Betty are too terrified of him to turn him out.  Mary Wells has turned to drinking since her husband abandoned her and their two daughters.  You get the picture.  Social worker Rose Tyler seems to be the most stable person in this Colorado town, but even she occasionally loses her composure, especially when well-meaning but inadequate parents can’t take care of themselves, much less protect their children.  The tone and dialog in Haruf’s novels is so pitch-perfect that I just want to immerse myself in these people’s lives as long as possible, even when things are going badly for them.  Haruf has set a high bar for the third book in the series, Benediction, and I already have it on my bookshelf.  He treats his characters with such tenderness that I find it difficult to blame them for occasionally wallowing in their despair.  If I had a complaint about this novel, and I really don’t, it’s that everyone seems to be a victim of some sort of heartbreak, but the beauty of the novel is how most of them manage to overcome it and perhaps even provide solace to those who are still suffering.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

CELINE by Peter Heller

How refreshing it is to have a heroine who is a 60-something female private investigator.  Celine’s specialty is reuniting family members, and she has a personal reason for pursuing these types of cases, often pro bono.  She takes on a case from a young woman, Gabriela, whose mother drowned when she was a child and whose father, a National Geographic photographer, vanished over 20 years ago.  He was declared dead from a bear attack, but his body was never recovered, and Gabriela now wants closure.  Celine and her very laidback husband Pete borrow her son’s popup camper and head to Yellowstone, near where Gabriela’s father disappeared.  We soon find that Celine is crafty and skilled in ways we, and her husband, never would have imagined, despite the fact that she sometimes needs supplemental oxygen, especially at high altitudes.  Plus, they are trying to outsmart a guy who is tracking them and who also may have an interest in finding Gabriela’s father.   This book does have a few flaws, particularly in the believability department.  For example, Pete and Celine are able to gather every magazine issue that featured Gabriela’s father’s work as they are making their way across Wyoming and Montana.  I also felt that the reason for Gabriela’s father’s disappearance was totally out of left field.  Still, this is an enjoyable read, especially if you like seeing a badass old lady clear out a bar full of bikers with bad attitudes.  After a few months I may not remember much about this intrepid geriatric duo, but I enjoyed the time I spent with them.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

NEW ENGLAND WHITE by Stephen L. Carter

I didn’t like this book as well as his first novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park, partly because the formula was pretty much the same.  We’re still in a New England college town, where Lemaster Carlyle is the president of the college.  His wife Julia is a dean in the divinity school, and she is the main character.  The Carlyles are black, although all of their neighbors are white.  Their teenage daughter Vanessa is having behavioral problems and seeing a psychiatrist.  She is obsessed with the murder of Gina Joule, a teenager who was murdered in the community years ago.  Meanwhile, Julia’s ex-lover Kellen Zant has been murdered, and he too seems to have been trying to find out who really killed Gina Joule.   Kellen has left Julia a slew of obscure clues, and she embarks on a dangerous scavenger hunt to discover what Kellen was up to and who killed him.  The plot is a little too convoluted, and the author keeps us (and Julia) guessing about the intentions of the secondary characters, such as the campus security chief and a writer whom Julia meets at Kellen’s funeral.  Nagging at Julia throughout the novel is her suspicion that her husband may have been involved in Gina’s murder while he was in college, or at least in a cover-up.  I actually got a little tired of Julia and her class consciousness, but what really annoyed me was that she seemed to leave a lot of conversations unfinished.  For example, at one point her husband is talking about something that happened with one of his three roommates in college, but he doesn’t tell her which one.  Obviously, he wants to keep that person’s identity a secret, but it’s not obvious that Julia even asks.  This same scenario happens several times, where Julia obtains incomplete information but doesn’t press for the full story.  I think this failing is more the author’s fault than the character’s, because Julia certainly comes across as being very thorough and leaving no stone unturned in her quest for the truth.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

ORIGIN by Dan Brown

I read this book for book club, and it did not change my opinion of Dan Brown.  The subject matter is as thought-provoking as ever, but the writing has not improved.  Still, you have to give the guy credit for tackling the origin of life and whether it can be scientifically explained.  Robert Langford is on the scene again, with the help of another beautiful woman, to find out what his friend Edmund Kirsch had discovered.  Kirsch’s highly anticipated announcement is cut short by the bullet of an assassin who is a member of an ultra-conservative religious sect.  Langford’s cohort is Ambra Vidal, engaged to the future king of Spain, but the two of them must wrestle with the question of who orchestrated Kirsch’s murder.  It could have been Ambra’s fiancĂ© or the priest who has been the long-time adviser and confidant to the king.  Catholicism is an integral part of Spanish culture, and Kirsch’s discovery threatens to discredit the Adam and Eve story.  (Hasn’t Darwin already done that?)  For me, this was not really a page-turner and had no startling revelations or surprises.  I did enjoy the discussion of the difference between patterns--which exist in nature in snowflakes and tornadoes, among other things--and codes.  DNA is the one obvious code, and Langford ruminates on the question of whether its existence implies divine intervention.  Also, am I the only person who didn’t know there is an arrow in the negative space of the FedEx logo?

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES by Karen Joy Fowler

Fern and Rosemary were raised as sisters for the first five years of their lives.  Then Fern had to leave the family, and this book deals largely with her departure and subsequent whereabouts.  Fern is a chimpanzee who learns sign language, wears human clothes, becomes potty-trained, and functions as a full member of the Cooke family, in which the father is a psychologist.  Rosemary narrates this story during her college years.  Her brother Lowell disappeared several years earlier, probably to engage in animal rights activism.  Neither sibling has gotten over Fern’s removal from the family, and we don’t learn what led to her departure until late in the novel.  Rosemary has some social issues, perhaps partly due to the grief of being separated from Fern, but more from having spent her early childhood with a chimp for a sister.  Rosemary as a child was a chatterbox for one thing, but she also adopted some chimp-like behaviors, such as touching someone’s hair, that made her a bit of a problem child during her early school years.  Now that she’s in college and in need of friends, she lands in jail with Harlow, a fellow student with behavioral problems of her own.  The beginning of the book is very funny, but things get darker in a hurry, and my enthusiasm for the book went downhill with the change of tone.  I certainly found it very disturbing that a chimp raised completely with loving humans would suddenly be thrust into an environment that was completely foreign to her.  Then again, cats do not fare too well in this novel, either.  All in all, for most of us it’s easier to read about the mistreatment of people than the mistreatment of helpless animals.