Wednesday, February 3, 2016

ALL I LOVE AND KNOW by Judith Frank

Daniel’s twin brother Joel and Joel’s wife Ilana have just been killed in a terrorist attack on a coffee shop in Jerusalem.  Knowing that they lived in a perilous region, Joel and Ilana had told Daniel to take their two children, Gal and Noam, back to the U.S. if anything ever happened to them.  Daniel and his partner Matt, along with Daniel’s parents, travel to Israel to identify Joel’s body and mourn with Ilana’s parents, both of whom are Holocaust survivors.  The will grants Daniel custody of the children, as expected, and both sets of grandparents are shocked and hurt.  Then everyone learns that the Israeli government may not release the children to the care of a gay couple in the U.S.  This novel has more than enough thought-provoking conflicts to go around, including some between Daniel and Matt, and the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict makes their world seem to be a pretty volatile place.  Six-year-old Gal is a handful--bratty and difficult to manage--taking her cues from the bewildered adults around her, while Noam, not quite a year old, may have a developmental disability.  Daniel cannot come to terms with his own grief and refuses to seek help.  He struck me as petulant and sometimes impulsive as he grapples with his brother’s legacy and seeks the best situation for the children.  Matt, whom I liked much better, becomes increasingly more exasperated with Daniel, who is no longer the same man he chose as a partner 4 years ago.  Nothing seems to be easy for these two men, and after a particularly disturbing incident, this novel’s world became one that I did not want to inhabit any longer than necessary.  I found myself either wanting to slap some sense into Matt and Daniel or give them a hug.  The ending came as a relief, although I would have liked closure on a few unresolved issues.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

& SONS by David Gilbert

Thank heavens I recently read Moby Dick, so that I know who Queequeg is.  Otherwise, those allusions would have missed their mark totally.  Certainly, this novel is snobbish in a prep school sort of way, but, after all, the novel is about a New York writer, A. N. Dyer, whose first novel, Ampersand, is a modern classic, on a level with The Catcher in the Rye.  Dyer, now in his 70s, still pecks away on his typewriter but is starting to face his own mortality.  The narrator is Philip Topping, son of Dyer’s recently deceased best friend Charlie.  Philip grew up as sort of a cousin to Dyer’s adult sons Richard and Jamie, both of whom are more or less following in Dad’s footsteps career-wise.  Dyer’s third son, Andy, is 17, the product of a mid-life fling and obviously the apple of his father’s eye.  Two major plot points dominate the story:  What is Dyer currently working on so ferociously and surreptitiously?  And why is Dyer so obsessed with Andy, to the point that he breaks down during his eulogy to Charlie because he has temporarily lost sight of Andy?  The answers to this two questions come to light fairly early in the novel, but then we find that Philip is interested in yet a third question:  What was his father’s relationship to Dyer like?  Some clues are found in the novel Ampersand, excerpts of which appear in this novel, and some clues appear in decades-old hand-written correspondence between the two men.  To say that this novel is full of itself is an understatement, and there are virtually no women characters.  Isabel, Dyer’s ex-wife, makes a strong but brief cameo appearance, and then there’s Andy’s crush, Jeanie Spokes, but she’s pretty much a lightweight as far as the plot is concerned.  I felt that the author’s aim was to create a piece of highbrow literature, but I’m not sure that he quite achieved that objective.  Still, it was a nice change from all the Oprah-esque stuff I’ve been reading.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A FALL OF MARIGOLDS by Susan Meissner

I was very reluctant to read this book, knowing that Meissner writes Christian fiction.  Furthermore, the fact that this novel falls squarely in the women’s fiction genre did not enhance its appeal.  Since it’s a book club pick, though, I dived in and was very pleasantly surprised.  The writing did not turn me off, and the storyline totally grabbed my attention.  Two women have lost men in devastating New York tragedies—one on 9/11 and the other in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911.  In both cases, the men who died were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the women in the story are coping not just with grief but also with guilt over their roles in why the men were where they were.  Ten years after 9/11, a photo of Taryn from that awful day surfaces in a magazine, and she has to relive the events surrounding her husband’s death in a way that she has avoided until now.  The main character, however, is Clara, a nurse on Ellis Island in 1911, who cannot bring herself to leave the island, after surviving the shirtwaist factory fire.  Before the fire, she had met a man on the elevator who seemed to have potential as more than a passing acquaintance.  The image of him leaping from the flames to his death is horrific, and Clara buries herself in her work.  She then meets an immigrant, Andrew Gwynn, whose wife has died of scarlet fever en route to the United States.  Clara becomes involved in his personal life, stumbling upon information that would be devastating to Andrew, leaving Clara with the difficult decision of whether to share the information with him.  I didn’t really see any elements of Christian fiction until I reached the end, but I also found the ending, in Taryn’s case in particular, to be a bit overly tear-inducing.  Anyway, I really liked the first 80% of the book, and that’s enough for 4 stars.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

SHINE SHINE SHINE by Lydia Netzer

Sunny Mann is a young woman who has been hairless from birth.  To fit in better with her affluent friends, she never goes out in public without her false eyebrows, lashes, and an appropriate wig.  Then her wig flies off in a car accident, and she vows never to put it on again.  The accident seems to have jostled her senses a bit, because she also decides to take her autistic son Bubber off his meds, despite the fact that he has been evicted from his pre-school.  To complete her renunciation of the artificial, she allows hospital staff to remove her mother from life support.  And did I mention that she’s pregnant?  Her husband Maxon’s life, on the other hand, revolves around the artificial—artificial intelligence, that is.  Maxon, whom Sunny has known since childhood, is a high-functioning autistic savant and a Nobel-prize-winning robotics scientist.  While Sunny is stripping down her tumultuous life in Virginia, Maxon is on his way to the moon.  The mission’s cargo module contains robots that will build more robots from materials on the moon, to pave the way for human colonization.  In other words, the Manns are not your typical family, but they grapple with very typical issues—guilt, anxiety, humiliation, marital strife, and indecision over what to bring to the neighborhood crafts bazaar.  Dark secrets eventually come to light, but overall this is not a dark novel.  It does indeed shine, as do its characters, who refuse to see themselves as victims of their afflictions.  Sunny and Maxon are both strong individuals who never seem to doubt their ability to cope.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

GEMINI by Carol Cassella

This novel revolves around the lives of two women in the state of Washington.  One, Charlotte, is a Seattle physician with a Jane Doe hit-and-run patient on life support.  The other woman is Raney, an aspiring artist whom we meet as a 12-year-old girl who lives in a rural town with her grandfather.  She falls in love with Bo, whose social class Raney knows she can never be a part of.  Both stories have their merits, and we know that Charlotte’s and Raney’s lives will collide at some point.  Meanwhile, Charlotte develops an affinity for her Jane Doe, above and beyond the care and concern that she feels for all of her patients.  She hopes that Jane’s body will heal itself enough for her to breathe on her own, but Jane has almost certainly suffered significant brain damage and will probably never be able to resume any sort of normal life.  Of course, Jane’s situation begs the question:  What sort of life could she have had prior to the accident, given that no one has come forward to identify her?  Even after we learn who Jane is, other mysteries surface about her injuries and her family.  I liked the way in which the author weaves together the lives of these two women, each grappling with her own set of challenges.  Raney struggles to keep her head above water financially, while Charlotte begins to want to start a family of her own, perhaps with her science-writer boyfriend, Eric.  Charlotte’s bigger quandary, though, is what to do about Jane.  As Jane’s physician, how much right does she have to investigate the circumstances that put Jane in such an unfortunate position?  And the significance of the title remains a mystery until the very end.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

MOBY DICK by Herman Melville

Inspired by the movie In the Heart of the Sea, I decided to read this classic that was not required reading at my high school.  I thought this novel would be more about a marathon battle between man and nature, like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, but a lot longer.  However, I kept reading and reading and waiting for the big white whale to show up, but Melville kept me in suspense for 400+ pages.  The bulk of the book is actually a history lesson, describing whales and whaling to the nth degree.  Not that that’s a bad thing.  I actually found the anatomy of the sperm whale and its comparison of size, weight, and characteristics to a right whale to be fairly interesting.  Then we have the specifics on how a whale is harpooned from smaller boats and lashed to the side of the ship, where sharks swarm to get a piece of the action.  The biggest butchering task is the decapitation of the sperm whale, since the head contains the valuable spermaceti oil.   I also learned that a storm can disrupt the behavior of a compass needle.  There’s not a lot of action or character development, if you ask me, but the central character is Captain Ahab, who demands that his crew vow to hunt and destroy Moby Dick, the big white sperm whale who is responsible for Ahab having lost a leg.  Ahab’s singular mission is a mad obsession, as his thirst for revenge clouds his judgment, putting the welfare of his ship and crew at risk.  The occasional encounter with another ship breaks up the monotony of several years at sea, for both the crew and the reader.  When the captain of another ship comes requesting lamp oil, Stubb, the 2nd mate, mistakes the captain’s lamp-feeder for a coffee pot.  Stubb tells the 1st mate, Starbuck (what a familiar name!), that the visiting captain must be OK if he’s come to make coffee.  Who knew that the guys who started the ubiquitous purveyors of coffee were Moby Dick readers?

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

THE YELLOW BIRDS by Kevin Powers

Private Bartle, age 21, and Private Murphy, age 18, are U.S. soldiers in Iraq in 2004.  Murphy is sort of a fragile runt, with Bartle as his assigned protector, and Bartle has foolishly promised Murphy’s mother that he will see that her son returns home safely.  We know early on that Bartle, the narrator, will have to renege on that promise.  We also know that Bartle suffers tremendous guilt regarding Murphy’s fate after he returns to the U.S.  The author keeps us in suspense until the end of the novel when he finally discloses the circumstances of Murphy’s death.  The chapters leading up to this finale alternate between the seemingly ineffective gunfire exchanges in Iraq and Bartle’s inability to cope with life after his return to the States, spent in a drunken stupor.  For both Bartle and Murphy, the war is a baffling exercise in futility, but Murphy in particular starts becoming unglued, having witnessed his sergeant murdering civilians and having watched a fellow soldier die in combat.  As the sergeant puts it, “You’ve got to stay deviant,” and Murphy is much too sensitive to survive emotionally or physically in such a gruesome environment.  To me, this is not so much a buddy novel as it is a story of an innocent young man and his slightly-more-mature reluctant bodyguard.  Both Murphy and Bartle make bad decisions with devastating consequences, but we can chalk Murphy’s mistakes up to his delicate nature.  However, Bartle, as our narrator, is the more sympathetic character, and we willingly forgive his transgressions, given the traumatic circumstances.  I’m not in a position to judge how authentic Bartle’s voice is, but it seemed pretty real to me—maybe a little too real.