Wednesday, August 5, 2020

CHANCES ARE... by Richard Russo

This may not be a mystery novel, but the storyline does revolve around Jacy’s disappearance in 1971.  She and three guys, all head-over-heels in love with her—Mickey, Teddy, and Lincoln—had just graduated from an exclusive New England college.  The Vietnam War was raging, and the draft lottery dealt each guy a different hand.  Now the three men, in their late sixties, have reunited for a long weekend, and it was all too obvious to me what happened to Jacy, more or less.  The first half of the novel was much more engrossing than the second half, which is largely Jacy’s story, and, for me, she did not leap off the page as well as the men did in the first half.  I’ll spare you the details that made her whereabouts obvious, and some parts of her story did not make sense to me.  My biggest beef with this book is that Russo failed to make me appreciate Jacy’s charisma.  Why exactly did all three guys adore her?  I understand why none of them made a play for her; they would probably have sacrificed their friendship with the other two.   Plus, she was engaged, but her fiancĂ© attended a different school.  The three guys all worked in the dining hall of Jacy’s sorority house and were not in her same league financially.  (I loved the comment in the book that only the wealthy use the word “summer” as a verb.)  Still, there was certainly more to Jacy than her elevated social standing.  She came across as free-spirited and compassionate and perhaps a bit elusive.  For me, the most intriguing character is Teddy, who struggles with both mental and physical issues, but he is not a particularly appealing character.  That distinction belongs to Lincoln, who is the main character, but I wish his wife Anita, an attorney who passed up an opportunity to attend Stanford law school, had appeared on the page more frequently.  Her wisdom far exceeds that of any of the other characters.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

MOHAWK by Richard Russo

Annie is a divorced thirty-something in the small town of Mohawk, NY.  Her son Randall is as smart as a whip but finds that he is more popular if he doesn’t make straight A’s.  In a town where mediocrity is obviously prized, Annie’s father, Mather Grouse, is one of the few denizens who values integrity.  Annie’s ex, Dallas, is a personable guy but totally unreliable, and Annie is in love with her cousin’s husband Dan, who is in a wheelchair.  There are some villains as well, mostly in the person of Rory Gaffney, but a small town novel would not be complete without some school bullies.  This novel is basically a character study of people who wish their lives had taken a different path, except for Dallas, who contentedly wears shirts with someone else’s name that he accidentally retrieves from the laundromat dryer.  A plot finally develops in the last 100 pages or so, but it was almost too little too late.  The writing is superb, and the characters are vivid, but except for a nearly lethal building demolition, nothing much happens for around 300 pages.  I can survive on sparkling dialog for only so long.  The final quarter of the book does make it worth reading, but I think Russo’s more recent stuff may be a better use of my time.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

THE LITTLE FRIEND by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt crafts each sentence so meticulously that it’s no wonder she writes only one book every ten years.  This novel takes place in the fictional town of Alexandria, Mississippi, not far from my home town of Memphis, in the 1970s.  Reminiscent of Faulkner in its setting and its subject matter, this story takes place during one summer in which precocious 12-year-old Harriet sets out to avenge the hanging of her brother when Harriet was an infant.  Harriet has to rely on her elderly aunts, her grandmother, and her household’s black maid for adult role models and supervision, since her mother has never recovered emotionally from her son’s death.  Harriet’s nemesis is Danny Ratliff, who may or may not have murdered her brother, and his family is dysfunctional in a completely different way.  One brother, Eugene, is intent on becoming a snake-handling preacher, and the other, Farish, is cooking crystal meth, with a taxidermy business on the side as a cover.  Some reviewers have deemed this a coming-of-age story, but I see it as an adventure that gets out of hand.  Harriet and her partner-in-crime, a boy named Hely, get in way over their heads by threatening the Ratliff brothers, particularly since Eugene and Farish are completely whacked out on their own product.  I really felt sorry for these ne’er-do-well Ratliff men whose grandmother constantly warns them that they will never escape their impoverished roots.  For me, this psychological beating is almost more devastating than a physical assault.  It just seems so much more difficult to overcome.  My biggest disappointment in this book was the ending.  The suspense and excitement grow right up until the last page with no clear resolution.  After reading 600+ pages, I was expecting a more satisfying conclusion.  The author leaves us with clues about what will happen next, but I wasn’t really sure if all of the clues were reliable.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

THE GIVER OF STARS by Jojo Moyes

It’s the 1930s, and Alice’s marriage is a sham.  She and her husband Bennett live in the same house as Bennett’s father, who owns a coal mine in rural Kentucky.  The community has begun a library service that delivers books to families who live in the wooded hills nearby.  Alice seizes the opportunity to escape her unfulfilled life by volunteering as one of the packhorse librarians.  She is an accomplished horsewoman from England, and soon finds that this job basically gives her a whole new family.  The other three librarians have their own reasons for joining the group, but the most independent of these is Margery, their defacto leader.  After having cried my way through Me Before You, I was not enthusiastic about reading another JoJo Moyes novel, but I found myself racing through this book and, yes, stopping at intervals to wipe the tears from my eyes, particularly as I neared the end.  It’s formulaic and melodramatic, and the writing is so-so, but I can’t deny that Moyes has a knack for eliciting emotion from the reader, in a manipulative sort of way.  Alice is the main character, but Margery as her mentor is the book’s heart and soul and is as ornery as her mule, Charley.  The book has conflict galore but mainly in the person of Alice’s father-in-law.  He is rotten to the core with his disregard for the safety of the miners and their families, and he’s as mean as a snake when it comes to his expectations of women in general and the packhorse librarians in particular, especially Alice and Margery.  He is about as one-dimensional a character as they come, and Bennett cowers in his father’s shadow.  There are a few good men as well, and they are just as one-dimensional in the opposite direction.  This may not be great literature, but I unabashedly enjoyed my hours with these strong women who are even stronger together.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

THE SPLENDID AND THE VILE by Erik Larson

This book may not be as great as its main character, but it is still pretty great.  I am not a history buff, but Erik Larson always makes historical narratives enthralling by adding personal insight into the daily lives of people—Churchill in this case—whose impact on the world is immeasurable.  Here Larson covers a year of Churchill’s life and work, beginning with his appointment as Prime Minister in 1940.  The book is an intimate portrait of his family and his closest friends and advisers.  Much of the information comes from the diary of one of his secretaries, John Colville, who apparently comments on Churchill’s family at least as much as his own personal life.  Although this is Churchill’s story, the book also contains a decent amount of information about the inner workings and strategies of the Nazi government.  Hitler’s chief propagandist, Goebbels, makes the staggering assessment in his diary that “If he [Churchill] had come to power in 1933, we [the Germans] would not be where we are today.”  On the British side, much credit also goes to Lord Beaverbrook, who miraculously whips the disorganized British aircraft industry into shape.  Churchill’s oratory gifts are basically what keeps the country afloat, boosting morale even as German bombs are exploding all over England.  His words also target another audience—Roosevelt and the American people.  Desperate for help from the U.S., Churchill walks a fine line between depicting Britain as fighting a losing battle and being fine on its own.  Finally, Pearl Harbor changes everything.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

ISAAC'S STORM by Erik Larson

Isaac Cline is the Isaac in the title of this terrific book about the Galveston hurricane of 1900.  His hubris makes him an anti-hero, but he is not half as bad as his superiors in the Weather Bureau in Washington.  It’s one thing to underestimate the impact of a storm, but to blatantly deny those who have first-hand information the ability to disseminate that information is criminally corrupt.  Isaac is foolhardy in his confidence that a hurricane can never hit Galveston and that his house can withstand any storm that nature might send its way.  Granted, there were no satellites in 1900, and meteorologists had scant information as to where a storm was at any given time, especially if the storm was currently over water.  Still, the assumptions they made were not only deadly, but they seemed to have no basis in reality whatsoever.  This book should serve as a warning to any leader that downplays Mother Nature’s power.  This story is gripping, especially as the author introduces us to various people in the town, as well as those who found themselves in transit via railway to Galveston as the storm hit.  Larson tells us of human losses in a very human way and leaves us with images that we are not likely to forget, such as a group of children strung together to an adult with clothesline, only to drown when the line gets caught in the myriad debris.  This book has lessons galore but also stories of survival under devastating and dangerous circumstances.  It also has a few surprises.  Who knew that some people died from snakebites? 

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

THE DUTCH HOUSE by Ann Patchett

Danny Conroy may be the first-person narrator of this book (I’m always little thrown off by male first-person narrators of books penned by female authors), but the house in the title carries more influence than many of the human characters.  Danny and his older sister Maeve grow up in this house, mostly without the presence of their do-gooder mother, who is appalled by the ostentatious structure that feels to her more like a museum than a home.  She abandons her children to help the poor in India, and her husband carelessly marries a pretty golddigger, who morphs into a wicked stepmother in no time.  This premise may not sound very original, but in the hands of a great writer like Patchett, it doesn’t have to be.  I will say that I had no difficulty putting the book down, until a revelation about halfway through the book grabbed my attention temporarily.  My excitement quickly fizzled, but no matter.  This is basically a sibling story where the older sister becomes the surrogate mother, and although I realize that’s not very original, either, Maeve and Danny’s relationship is the glue that holds this novel together.  One of my favorite passages in the book is Danny’s comparison of a hospital’s layout to a cancer that grows willy-nilly, as wings are bequeathed and added to the building in haphazard fashion.  How true.  I like a number of Patchett’s novels more (Taft, The Magician’s Assistant, State of Wonder, Bel Canto), but I still found this to be a satisfying and enjoyable read, though possibly not memorable.