Wednesday, November 26, 2014

ROOMS by Lauren Oliver

I’m not big on ghost stories, because they seem a little silly to me.  In this case, the ghosts are two women who inhabited the same house at different times.  The latest inhabitant, Richard Walker, has died, and his estranged family have come for the funeral and to clean out the house.  Ex-wife Caroline is the alcoholic mother of Trenton, a melancholy teenager, and his much older acerbic sister Minna, who has a toddler of her own.  Minna is basically a sex addict, but all three of these characters are so maladjusted that the ghosts, Alice and Sandra, seem relatively sane by comparison.  Sandra died in the house of a gunshot wound, and Alice’s memories are equally depressing, without such a violent finale.  As you can see, this is not exactly an upbeat story.  It has a few twists but nothing really jaw-dropping, and I kept having to back up to see which of the ghosts was narrating.  Their stories don’t directly relate to the lives of the living, and the author made such an effort to delay telling us Alice’s and Sandra’s histories that the shock value had lost most of its punch, and the histories were too segmented for me to become immersed in.  Only Richard really seemed to have had a zest for living, and now he’s gone.  Also, our view of him is skewed by the warped opinions of his family, so that we never have a real grasp of who he was.  Trenton is the one we root for, but with this bunch surrounding him, he doesn’t really stand a chance.  A third ghost joins the party late in the book.  Trenton is aware of her presence and finds her intriguing enough to give him a reason to keep on living, but, ironically, she beckons to Trenton to come join her on the other side.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

FLORENCE GORDON by Brian Morton

Florence Gordon has a lot in common with Olive Kitteridge.  In both books the title character is a feisty, sharp-tongued, snobbish, older woman who tells it like she sees it.  Florence is a feminist writer, known only to a few faithful followers until her latest book receives a glowing review in the NY Times.  She enlists her granddaughter Emily as her assistant, but Emily is the big winner in this uneasy relationship.  Florence never softens, but Emily begins to see Florence as a role model for standing up for herself and finds that she can dish it out just as well as Florence when the situation calls for the blunt truth.  Florence does, however, harbor a secret that would invite all sorts of fawning and sympathy if she were to disclose it, and sympathy is the last thing she wants.  There’s one scene where Florence unmercifully dresses down the volunteer who serves as her driver for a book-signing event.  When Dolly, the volunteer, tries to persuade Florence to read her manuscript, we know that she is in store for a tongue-lashing.  Dolly accepts her punishment, however, with grace and good humor, and Florence finds herself admiring this woman’s aplomb.  No one is exempt from Florence’s disapproval, including her son, Daniel, who is a well-educated cop, and his wife Janine, who is an overly enthusiastic fan of Florence’s work.  Florence’s ex-husband Saul tries to enlist Florence’s help in resurrecting his career, but you can imagine how that discussion goes.  There are several sparkling conversations in this book in which Florence always has the upper hand, until her final verbal battle with Emily, in which Emily proves that she has learned from the master how to hold her own.  Certainly the dialog is the star of this novel, eliciting cringes from the reader as we wonder how Florence has any bridges left to burn.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

COLORLESS TSUKURU TAZAKI AND HIS YEARS OF PILGRIMAGE by Haruki Murakami

This is my first Murakami novel, and I have to say this:  He needs a better translator.  The dialog was unnatural, and the smattering of unnecessary split infinitives was annoying.  I have to blame the author, though, for the zillion loose ends not tidied up by the end of the novel.  In high school Tsukuru finds himself joining 2 other men and 2 women in a very tight-knit group of friends.  Tsukuru is the only one of the five who goes away to college, and soon one of the men in the group tells him that the group is severing ties with Tsukuru completely, with no further explanation.  Tsukuru is dumbfounded but makes no effort to find out why the group has so unceremoniously dumped him.  He goes into a tailspin and contemplates death until another young man befriends him and drags him out his funk.  In his 30s, Tsukuru meets Sara and becomes romantically attached to her.  She, however, feels that Tsukuru’s past is interfering with his ability to sustain a close relationship, and she insists that he visit the other 4 members of his old clique to find out why they ousted him.  What ensues is not so much a pilgrimage as an awakening as to how the truth will set you free.  Tsukuru’s self-esteem ironically has suffered for all these years over a schism partly brought about by his perceived emotional strength, relative to the other members of the group.  Auras and erotic dreams fuel Tsukuru’s self-loathing and, coupled with a particularly odd tale about death, lend this book a sort of otherworldly atmosphere that does feel culturally peculiar and foreign, despite the universal themes.  I recommend that you take this journey with Tsukuru, as long as you’re not expecting closure.  Colorless it is not.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK by Piper Kerman

Piper Kerman may not be one of the best writers in the world, but her work here is good enough.  And the subject matter is an eye opener.  I don’t even mind that she’s capitalizing on a serious mistake of her youth to produce this revealing portrait of a minimum security women’s prison. I have not seen a single episode of the TV series based on this memoir, but I now have a pretty clear idea of why it’s popular.  If you think a women’s prison is all cat fights among lesbians, you would be dead wrong.  Quite the contrary.  Most of the women Piper meets on the inside would be living productive lives on the outside if they were given half a chance.  Unfortunately, they have neither Kerman’s resources nor her extensive, caring, and extremely loyal support from friends and family.  Kerman makes sure that her reader understands that prison is not a happy place, especially for those women serving a decade or more with little hope for a better life after their release.  Kerman’s sentence of 15 months is not what brings her to the realization of the impact of her crime of transporting drug money. Rather, she sees how illegal drugs have kept so many women in prison, often distanced from their children, and that these women are often repeat offenders.  Kerman’s keen observations make a strong case for the cessation of the war on drugs, because the U.S. government is spending billions of dollars on room and board for women who pose no threat to society.  What’s even more striking is how these women form makeshift families in prison and do all they can to help their fellow inmates adjust and cope.  Theirs is a mostly congenial sisterhood where everyone has to bury their rage at the system so as not to jeopardize their ultimate goal--freedom.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

LAST TRAIN TO PARADISE by Les Standiford

Henry Flagler, along with John D. Rockefeller, founded Standard Oil, and became a multi-millionaire.  According to him, he would have died a rich man if it hadn’t been for Florida.  As a recent transplant to the Sunshine State, I have to say that I’m glad he spent so much of his fortune here.  He dredged Miami Harbor to put that city on the map and connected it to the rest of the country with railroad tracks.  Long before Disney came to Orlando, Flagler built several resort hotels, making Florida a destination, even before air conditioning made the state inhabitable in the hot, sticky summers.  His claim to fame, though, and the subject of this book, is the building of a rail line connecting Key West to the mainland.  I know nothing about structural engineering, but I can still appreciate what a feat he and his men accomplished, proving the naysayers wrong and battling mosquitoes and hurricane after hurricane.  Weather forecasting was virtually non-existent in the early 1900s, and Flagler soon found that floating dormitories for his workers could become watery coffins.   He pushed on, though, adapting to the elements and rebuilding when wind and water destroyed months of work.  His plans to make Key West a shipping hub did not pan out, but the tourists came in droves, so that when a 1935 hurricane blew out sections of the Seven-Mile Bridge, the federal government stepped in to replace and repair.  I’m not a big history buff, but I can’t deny the monumental contributions that Flagler made to the state of Florida, and I have to wonder if native Floridians are familiar with his accomplishments.  Plus, he began the “railroad across the ocean” after he was well into his seventies, thus becoming one of the early geriatrics to make his home in Florida.  However, a retiree he was not, and I applaud his energy, his vision, his determination, and his audacity.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

THE BLOOD OF FLOWERS by Anita Amirrezvani

In seventeenth century Iran, our unnamed narrator has reached the marriageable age of fourteen.  When her father dies, she and her mother basically become servants in the home of her father’s half-brother and his tyrannical wife.  The young narrator makes so many unforgiveable blunders that she is forced into a temporary marriage, which will bring in a little money, but the loss of her virginity will make finding a permanent husband that much more unlikely.  The upside is that the narrator is becoming an accomplished Persian rug maker, with some excellent advice regarding design and color from her uncle, who makes carpets for the Shah.  Finally, our narrator’s transgressions, which include lying and forgery, invoke the ire of the uncle’s wife to the point that she and her mother have to vacate the premises.  To say that our girl is impetuous and na├»ve is an understatement.  Considering the limited options available to women and the precariousness of the narrator’s situation, her behavior is bewilderingly outrageous and more than a little exasperating.  In fact, I found her to be not quite believable in this regard.  She foolishly puts her and her mother’s situation at risk time and time again, apparently thinking each time that no one will discover her deceits.  Even a fourteen-year-old should be able to learn from her mistakes.  When she destroys a rug that she was making, knowing that her uncle had paid for the wool yarn, what does she think will happen?  The other characteristic of this book that I did not like is that the author frequently interrupts the story with an Iranian fable, not all of which are authentic.  These are way too lengthy and not at all vital to the plot.  I realize that the author is trying to evoke a mood appropriate to the setting, but I read each of these tales with the sense that I was wasting my time.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

THE INTERESTINGS by Meg Wolitzer

A cool group of teenagers at an artsy summer camp dub Julie Jacobson “Jules,” and the new name fits her new attitude and aspirations.  The other members of the group have various talents, but Ethan, an unattractive genius at animation is the standout, and he has a thing for Jules.  She, on the other hand, has eyes only for Goodman, ironically named, since he turns out not to be a “good man” at all.  Goodman’s beautiful sister Ash becomes fast friends with Jules, and they remain close into adulthood, even as they become mothers at almost the same time.   Their lives, however, could not be more different, as Ash is now the wife of the enormously successful Ethan, while Jules has married Dennis, a lovable guy but an outsider to Jules’s more polished friends.  Two prevailing themes struck me as intriguing in this book.  One is the question of how do social and economic inequity affect friendship.  Ash and Jules had very different social circles growing up, and their increasingly divergent lifestyles cause Jules to lose confidence in her value as a friend to Ash.  Would a large monetary gift lift Jules and Dennis out of their constant financial struggle, or would it make them feel even more resentful and inadequate?  The other theme that I noticed was that of loyalty.  Ash finds herself in a sticky spot where she has to choose whether to align herself with her husband or with her parents and brother.  This is not the kind of choice most of us ever have to make, and, honestly, the choice is as much one of right and wrong as it is a choice of loyalty.  I get it that so many parents have blinders over their eyes when it comes to the wrongdoings of their children, but Ash’s staunch support of her brother reflects badly on her character.  Jules, unfortunately, gets caught in the middle, and although the issue at hand is in some ways tangential to the plot, it’s a prime indicator of each character’s moral compass.  Jules finds herself in Ash’s court, refusing to acknowledge that she’s on the wrong team.  Will Jules ever develop a backbone?