Wednesday, August 24, 2016

SWEETBITTER by Stephanie Danler

This novel chronicles a year in the life of 22-year-old Tess, whose name is not revealed until she is voted by her fellow employees as the person you’d most like to get stuck in an elevator with.  Without even enough cash to pay highway tolls, Tess arrives in New York and lands a job as a backwaiter at a tony restaurant.  As the “new girl,” she struggles to find her niche there among the more seasoned staff and develops a crush on Jake, the handsome and elusive bartender, whose relationship with Tess’s mentor, Simone, dates back to childhood and may or may not be sexual.  Burning the candle at both ends, Tess finds herself in a vicious cycle of drugs and alcohol, and I’m not sure how she is alert enough at work to learn about French wine regions.  This is what I would call an ensemble novel, and it’s the first one I’ve read since Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End in which the characters all work together.  It’s not about family per se, but then sometimes the workplace becomes a surrogate family.  From the beginning we know that Tess does not have a plan for her future.  She’s basically treading water, but then the author makes the point that restaurant workers are mostly young and eventually move on.  Simone is particularly an enigma.  She’s in her 30s, for one thing, but she takes Tess under her wing while warning her to stay away from Jake.  Tess is na├»ve but a quick study, except when it comes to matters of the heart.  Tess grew up without a mother, and Simone fills that void to a degree.  Simone may have already honed her maternal skills with Jake, but she becomes Henry Higgins to Tess’s Eliza Doolittle, and then the question is whether the student’s skills will surpass those of the professor.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

THE LIFE WE BURY by Allen Eskens

Joe Talbert is a struggling college student with an alcoholic mother and an autistic brother, Jeremy.  For a writing assignment, Joe interviews Carl Iverson, convicted years ago of murdering a teenage girl but now living out his last days in a nursing home with pancreatic cancer.  Of course, Carl claims to be innocent, but his story is corroborated by an old friend and fellow soldier in Vietnam, prompting Joe to delve into the crime.  Joe’s cute neighbor, Lila Nash, becomes involved in the decoding of the victim’s diary, and now we have a pair of amateur sleuths who don’t have a clue what they’re getting into.  Joe works part-time as a bouncer, so he at least has some pretty solid self-defense moves, and he can even go on the offense when there’s a damsel in distress.  Lila may have skeletons in her closet, but Joe especially feels that he can atone for a tragic mistake he made as a child by seeing that Carl is exonerated before he dies.  Carl also has his reasons for not participating more fully in his own defense at his trial.  I’m giving this novel 5 stars because I found it to be well-written and riveting, and it gallops along at breakneck speed.  It is not without its flaws, though.  Joe is conveniently lucky a few times too many, and why he trusts his alcoholic mother to look after his autistic brother is beyond my comprehension.  I get it that Joe’s education is important to him, but Jeremy would have been better off with almost anyone else.  The pacing of this novel is so fantastic that I chose to overlook the somewhat predictable plot and outcome.  My favorite scene is where Joe is recovering from hypothermia in a deserted hunting cabin and fashions an outfit from the curtains.  Scarlett O’Hara would be proud.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

THE MARRIAGE OF OPPOSITES by Alice Hoffman

I have enjoyed Alice Hoffman’s magical realism novels for years, but her historical novels, like this and The Dovekeepers, did not hold my attention at all.  This book mostly takes place in a Jewish community in St. Thomas in the 1800s.  The main character is Rachel, who, at a very young age, marries an older man with three children.  The purpose of this union is to cement a liaison with a man who can potentially save her family’s business.  When the husband dies, his nephew Frederic comes from France to take over his uncle’s role in the business.  He further steps into his uncle’s shoes when he falls in love with Rachel.  However, the Jewish community objects to a marriage between these two, based on the fact that they are “family members,” but Rachel and Frederic refuse to split up.  Their son Camille Pissarro eventually paves the way for a reconciliation between his parents and the Jewish community, and he goes on to become a famous artist of the Impressionist movement in France.  There are other forbidden romances in the novel, some with tragic consequences involving the progeny of these romances.  Even with all of the secrets and intrigue, this book dragged for me.  When Frederic enters the picture, the plot gets a little more juicy, but then the feud with the Jewish community occupies way too many pages, as do descriptions of flowers and of Camille’s unsuitability for the family business.  More annoying is Rachel’s transformation from being somewhat of a poster-child for women’s rights to a mother who is bent on stifling her son’s artistic aspirations.  Later, her disapproval of his choice of servant girl as his wife brands her a total hypocrite in my book.  I get it that she objects to her son’s marriage outside the faith more so than his marrying someone of lower social status. Still, when I look back not just on her own fight to marry the person of her choice but also her friend Jestine’s heartbreaking separation from the man and daughter she loved, I just don’t understand how she can suddenly be so obstinate when her son wants to follow his heart.  And one more complaint:  What happened to Rachel’s stepsons, David and Samuel?  At some point, the author abandons them and never fills us in about their fates.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

BLUE DIARY by Alice Hoffman

Beautiful Jorie and handsome Ethan have the perfect marriage.  Also, Ethan is an all-around good guy, serving as a volunteer fireman and Little League baseball coach in a small Massachusetts town.  In fact, he’s rescued several people from burning buildings, earning him a reputation as a local hero.  Suddenly, a blast from the past changes everything, and Ethan is arrested for a rape and murder that happened in Maryland before he met Jorie.  Jorie and her 12-year-old son Collie are in shock, and Jorie has to question how well she knows her husband, whose past she has apparently never shown an interest in.  Now, however, she journeys to the scene of the crime in order to experience more fully what its impact has been and to get a better handle on what happened.  The author’s signature magical realism is absent from this novel, but Jorie’s attitude up until the arrest seems to have been “ignorance is bliss,” and I didn’t really buy that.  More unbelievable, though, is the complete about-face that Ethan makes—from being a narcissistic sociopath to becoming a model husband, father, and citizen.  Kat, a friend of Collie’s, narrates part of the novel in first person and turns Ethan in after recognizing him from a photo on a reality TV crime show.  Her gorgeous 17-year-old sister Rosarie is basically the female equivalent of the old Ethan, so that Kat has first-hand knowledge of how someone can hide his/her true nature behind a pretty face.  What I liked about this book was the polarizing effect that Ethan’s arrest has on people.  In the Massachusetts town where he now lives, there are rallies to raise money for his defense fund, because no one there can believe that he would be capable of such a horrific crime.  In the Maryland town where the murder occurred, however, certainly no one has sympathy for Ethan or his family.  No one has felt safe there for the past 15 years, and some still think a ghost scarecrow committed the crime, because the murderer took a scarecrow’s clothes to replace his blood-soaked garments.  They hope to have closure, but nothing can bring back a life abruptly and brutally ended far too soon.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

THE RUSSIAN GIRL by Kingsley Amis

Richard is a professor of Slavic studies who thinks that reading English translations of Russian classics is a cop-out.  He’s married to Cordelia, who controls the purse strings, but falls for Russian poet Anna, whose poetry leaves a lot to be desired.  Herein lies the dilemma.  Anna’s brother is in a Russian prison, and she has the idea that if she can gain some acclaim for her work in England, she will be able to pressure the Russian authorities into releasing her brother.  To affirm her literary clout, Richard and his colleagues must sign a petition praising the value of her poetry.  Richard, therefore, has to choose between maintaining his professional integrity and showing support for the woman he loves.  He goes to some lengths to find someone who will dispute his low opinion of Anna’s poetry, but no such luck, even though he is moved to tears by one of her readings.  So two questions dominate the story:  Will Richard sign the petition?  And will Anna still love him if he doesn’t?  In case you’re feeling sorry for poor Cordelia, don’t.  She is not a sympathetic character at all, and she goes on a vindictive tear that is possibly warranted with regard to vengeance against Richard, but the collateral damage is not.  Despite the somewhat humorous turn of phrase now and then, this book just did not hold my attention.  Occasionally it’s OK for me to read a book that makes me sleepy so that I can get some much needed rest.  Still, I’d rather spend my time with a more riveting read.

Monday, August 1, 2016

LUCKY JIM by Kingsley Amis

Jim Dixon is a young history professor who smokes too much and drinks too much.  Put the two vices together and you have burned bedding in the home of Professor Welch, of the proverbial absent-minded variety, who holds sway over Dixon’s future.  Dixon has also been known to pull the occasional harmless prank in the pursuit of a woman or to exact revenge for revealing one of his screw-ups or secrets.  Dixon is drawn to two women.  Margaret is not particularly attractive, but Dixon feels a certain obligation to keep her company after an apparent suicide attempt.  Christine, on the other hand, is pretty and fun and becomes his accomplice in the bedding incident, but she’s the girlfriend of Welch’s unpleasant son, Bernard.  I have to give Dixon credit for wisdom in not trying to force Christine’s hand by blabbing about Bernard’s affair with Carol, a married woman.   In fact, Dixon has a number of commendable qualities, including being a decent judge of character and his ability to get in and out of some sticky situations of his own making.  His antics make him seem much more like a student who may not graduate than a professor who may get the boot.  Bear in mind, too, that this book was published in the 1950s, so that the humor is both retro and English.  This is my first Kingsley Amis novel, but perhaps I should have gone for one of his later, more serious novels.  For me, this one dragged, despite the terrific writing with lots of delightful metaphors and dialog that didn’t actually sound overly dated.  For example, his description of Dixon’s hangover as feeling like “he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police” made me feel Dixon’s pain.  And when he finally has to deliver his much-anticipated lecture on Merrie England, his nervousness and disorientation are palpable, and the mimicries are priceless.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

THE LINE OF BEAUTY by Alan Hollinghurst

Nick Guest is a guest—a lodger, actually—in the home of Conservative Parliament member Gerald and his wife Rachel, along with their grown children, Toby and Catherine. Toby and Nick were friends at Oxford, and Toby has invited Nick to move in with his family. Nick’s father is an antiques dealer, and Nick’s previous exposure to this level of posh gentility was limited to accompanying his father on clock-winding visits. It’s the late 1980s, and Nick is gay, so that the AIDs epidemic is lurking ominously on the horizon. Nick is an enigma, knowing that he does not quite fit in socially, but at the same time he somehow sees his host family members as friends. They, however, seem to view him more as a charity case who can help keep an eye on Catherine, who is bipolar. When she’s off her meds, she poses a threat to herself at least and may possibly be destructive in other ways. Nick is dangerous, too, in an entirely different way, blatantly snorting cocaine, right under the noses of the family, and meeting lovers in the garden. I couldn’t believe he would take his living situation for granted to the point that he would risk sullying Gerald’s political career. He overestimates his standing in the family, and in the end he realizes that his view of the family is seriously distorted. Their snobbish hypocrisy is obvious to the reader but not to Nick. There’s a reason his very rich friend Wani, short for Antoine, wants to keep their affair under wraps, and it’s not just for the sake of his Lebanese parents. Certainly, the appeal of this novel lies in its satirical treatment of upper-crusty manners, including a scene where high-as-a-kite Nick dances with Prime Minister Thatcher to a Rolling Stones tune. However, as a reader, you’ll be acutely aware that almost all of the male characters are gay, so that this novel’s world seems a little skewed in more ways than one. Hollinghurst’s sublime prose kept me interested in Nick’s fate, as I held onto the hope that he would stop making so many egregious errors in judgment before his world toppled around him.