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?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

SAVING CEECEE HONEYCUTT by Beth Hoffman

This book is for readers who need a break from sad stories.  It’s a marshmallow of a novel, and, unfortunately, I’m not a big marshmallow eater.  All the tragedy happens at the beginning, and, except for one or two ugly incidents, everything just keeps getting better and better for CeeCee Honeycutt.  Raised by a mother who is severely mentally ill, 12-year-old CeeCee’s life has been no picnic.  Everyone at school makes fun of her because of her mother, who still thinks she’s a 1951 beauty queen.  (It’s the 1960s, but didn’t we have Social Services back then?)  Whisked from Ohio to Savannah, Georgia, after her mother’s bizarre demise, CeeCee embarks on a new life as a Southern Belle.  Fortunately, CeeCee’s move takes place at the beginning of the summer, so that she can get to know her very wealthy guardian, Aunt Tootie, and Tootie’s beloved black housekeeper Oletta.  I’m not opposed to an upbeat novel now and then, but there’s just not enough conflict here, unless you consider a cat fight between two women at a garden party conflict.   The writing is not up to snuff, either, particularly in comparison to the last book I read—Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.  I get that the narrator is a 12-year-old, but I’ve found a couple of 5-year-old narrators (Room and The Bear) to be spellbinding.  This book’s problem, though, is with the plot more so than the writing.  The People magazine reviewer, Liza Hamm, gave this book a very positive review, but she also says, “Not a whole lot happens….”  I expect a book without much plot to have compelling characters, but Aunt Tootie, Oletta, and Mrs. Odell are all just too sugary sweet for words.  If you’re looking for a cream puff to offset some novels that left a bad taste in your mouth, then this might be just the ticket, but I need something salty or spicy after this.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt

Teenager Theo Decker loses his mother in a museum bombing in New York, and this event pretty much defines his life.  First, there’s the obvious loss of his mother, and his father is a deadbeat dad, whereabouts unknown.  Then there’s the matter of an old man, mortally injured in the explosion, who gives Theo a ring and some encouragement to make off with a 17th century painting—The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius.  Finally, Theo has a bad case of PTSD that causes him to find solace in drugs and alcohol, but actually he probably has a death wish.  At first, he can’t quite grasp the idea that he can’t continue living in the apartment that he shared with his mother.  For a time, he lives with his school chum Andy Barbour, whose family is dysfunctional but with mega financial resources to cushion the blow.  Next Theo finds himself in the Las Vegas outburbs where he becomes fast friends with Boris, who has also lost his mother.  Finally, he takes a bus back to New York, painting in tow, along with a small dog, hidden in a paper bag.  Theo’s next living situation is his best so far—with Hobie, furniture restorer and business partner of the old man who died in the museum.  I was not surprised to learn that Tartt is a great admirer of Dickens, because Theo is basically a hapless kid, surrounded by colorful but not-so-helpful influences, who finds his niche in the world by underhandedly selling Hobie’s rebuilt antiques as the real thing.  He gets Hobie out of debt, at the expense of potentially sullying his reputation.  When a sinister character starts threatening Theo with revealing all of his dirty deeds, including Theo’s theft of a certain lost work of art, Theo’s world starts to unravel.  Our next setting is Amsterdam, where things really get dicey.  Although most of the novel takes place in New York, sort of a safe haven for Theo, the seedy and contrasting backdrops of Amsterdam (dark and watery) and Nevada (sunny and desolate) make for perfect locales for a variety of criminal activities and reading pleasures.  Certainly the length of this book is a bit of a downside, but I never felt that reading it was a chore.  On the contrary, I had to find out if Theo could get his head on straight, despite Boris’s unexpected intrusions, luring Theo back to the dark side. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE by Maria Semple

This is what is known as an epistolary novel, but such an adjective sounds way too serious for this book.  It’s a manic whirlwind of hilarious emails, blog posts, letters, teenage musings, transcripts of conversations, medical bills, police reports—you name it.  Bernadette is a former Los Angeles architect who specialized in the use of local building materials.  Now she’s in Seattle—a city she detests and mercilessly skewers—and has abandoned her career for reasons to be revealed later in the book.  Her husband Elgin is a rising star at Microsoft, heading up Bill Gates’ favorite project.  Their daughter Bee has requested a trip to Antarctica as a reward for her topnotch academic performance.  When something seems too good to be true, like this perfect family or a virtual assistant who charges 75 cents an hour, trouble must be lurking just around the corner.  Then when nextdoor neighbor Audrey Griffin demands that Bernadette cut back her infringing blackberry vines, Bernadette complies, but a domino effect of chaos and hilarity ensues.  Audrey is so preoccupied with making the perfect impression that she’s oblivious to her son’s misdeeds. Bernadette, on the other hand, is borderline reclusive and delightfully wacky.  She is the enigmatic force that drives this story, and we finally get a close-up glimpse of her when we learn the details of her architectural accomplishments.  Her family’s wheels come off when Elgin becomes a little too close to his administrative assistant and begins questioning whether Bernadette’s antics are an indication of a mental breakdown.  Common sense is apparently not his forte, nor Bernadette’s either, for that matter, and thus Bee, wise beyond her years, has to step in to restore order.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

FLIGHT BEHAVIOR by Barbara Kingsolver

Dellarobia is on her way to a hunting cabin to meet the telephone man for a tryst, when she encounters an astonishing scene in the Appalachian mountains.  The trees appear to be covered in flames, but there’s obviously no fire.  This vision, which is really hordes of monarch butterflies, gives her pause to rethink her plans.  She turns back to her unhappy life with a passive husband and two small children on a sheep farm owned by her in-laws.  Mother-in-law Hester is a taciturn woman who seems chilly toward her own grandchildren and downright hostile toward Dellarobia.  Near the end of the book we find that she has her reasons for such a dismal outlook on life, but, in the meantime, the butterflies become a national sensation.  Ovid Byron, a scientist/professor from Arizona, sweeps in with a few assistants to try to determine why the butterflies have chosen to roost in Tennessee, where the winter cold will surely kill them and possibly annihilate the entire species.  The author uses this fictional phenomenon for two purposes.  First, Ovid becomes a vehicle for educating the locals about global warming, which they’ve heard of but don’t believe in.  The second purpose is that of providing a metaphor for opening up the outside world to Dellarobia and her young son Preston.  It’s a minor miracle how the author touches on so many themes in this book.  Dellarobia bristles at the condescending attitude held by both the scientific community and the press toward her neighbors, but she’s a quick study and soon grasps the gravity of the situation for the butterflies, as a microcosm of a planet whose ecosystems have gone awry.  Kingsolver’s prose is luscious, never preachy, and the dialog is crisp and witty.  An outsider handing out pamphlets, admonishing people to reduce their carbon footprint, gets a rude awakening when he recites his list of suggestions to Dellarobia.  She’s never been in a plane, has never bought bottled water, and hasn’t eaten in a restaurant in two years, demonstrating that her contribution to the problem is meager in comparison to that of urban dwellers.  Despite its weighty topic, this novel has a lot of heart and humor, and I embraced everything about it with delight.