Wednesday, January 13, 2021

AMERICAN DIRT by Jeanine Cummins

I have mixed feelings about this novel and not just about its authenticity.  I certainly have no legitimate knowledge of the Mexican-American experience.  This book opens with a massacre which Lydia and her 8-year-old son Luca manage to escape by hiding in the shower.  The remainder of the novel recounts their harrowing journey, partly by freight train, from their home in Acapulco to el norte—the U.S.  At face value, this is an adventure story, grounded by Lydia’s fierce vow to herself to protect her son, at all costs.  Along the way, she trusts people that she should not and is wary of people whose only motive is to help her; she definitely walks a tightrope between paranoia and a firm belief in the innate goodness of people that gradually erodes as she occasionally comes face to face with a stunning betrayal.  The biggest betrayal is from the beginning when an erudite man named Javier becomes her friend and then murders her family.  Javier is as unrealistic an example of a druglord as Lydia is of a migrant.  She is not fleeing poverty; rather she is fleeing Javier’s watchful eye and his possible desire to finish off Luca and Lydia, despite the fact that he is in love with her.  She is plagued by guilt, and that sentiment to me is perhaps the most inauthentic aspect of the novel.  She does not kill her family; the cartel does.  She also did not write the newspaper piece that caused Javier to lash out in revenge; her husband did, and he paid the ultimate price.  She had no way of knowing the domino effect that the article would ultimately have. I could perhaps relate to her emotions better if survivor’s guilt were in play here, but that’s really not the case.  And I get that the author wanted to shed some light on the migrant’s plight, but Lydia is not at all typical.  She is well-educated, and her son speaks perfect English.  He also has a photographic memory when it comes to geography.  Really?  Does such a thing exist?

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

AN ELEGANT WOMAN by Martha McPhee

I would expect a certain amount of confusion when reading a book about four generations of women, and there is that.  The narrator is fourth-generation Isadora, but her grandmother and great-grandmother dominate the novel, and rightfully so.  The first generation woman is Glenna, who leaves her husband in bed with his mistress in Ohio and takes their two daughters westward by train.  Glenna plans to make a living as an itinerant teacher, despite her lack of credentials and the disadvantage of having two small children in tow.  The elder daughter is Thelma, known as Tommy, who becomes a mother to her sister Katherine during Glenna’s lengthy absences.  Tommy has to sacrifice her own educational aspirations in order to run the household so that Katherine can graduate.  As adults, their lives diverge in a surprising way, with Tommy going east and Katherine going west.  Katherine decides to be known as Pat, since her middle name is Patricia, which she deems more suitable for her plan to become an actress. Tommy changes her name also and basically takes on a whole new identity, in an effort to become the person she wants to be.  Tommy then tries to ensure that her daughter Winter’s childhood is the complete opposite of her own.  In any case, Tommy’s life is the main focus of the novel and the glue which holds it all together, and for me, Tommy is the title character, although I guess one could argue that all four generations of women are elegant in their own way.  Male characters receive fairly cursory treatment here, except for Slim, Pat’s son, who can’t help but wonder how his life would have unfolded had his mother followed the path that Tommy forged.  This book is reminiscent of Wallace Stegner’s masterpiece, Angle of Repose, but does not quite rise to that standard.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

ASK AGAIN, YES by Mary Beth Keane

Brian and Anne Stanhope live next door to Francis and Lena Gleeson.  Soon it becomes apparent that Anne is unstable.  Her son Peter and the Gleeson’s youngest daughter Kate are playmates who begin to consider becoming more than just friends as they grow older.  However, a tragic event throws both families into turmoil, with the result that Kate and Peter do not meet again until college.  I became engrossed in this story though not immersed, if that makes sense.  The characters are all flawed to varying degrees and undergoing circumstances that at times resulted from a lack of communication, among other things.  Late in the novel Kate knows she has to confront Peter and initiate a frank and painful conversation with him but finds herself constantly backpedaling.  For me, this section is the most moving, and Kate’s uncertainty is very vivid.  Anne is a singularly unlikeable character, but I had to keep reminding myself that she is mentally ill and that I should not hold that against her.  I would say that maintaining an open mind about Anne was a challenge, and Kate’s missteps and coping mechanisms were quite exasperating.  The struggles of these two women are the heart of the book.  The main male character is Peter, and I found him to be completely enigmatic.  His career decision comes out of nowhere, and his transformation over the course of the book left me scratching my head.  There are hints that he has psychological issues himself, though not on a par with his mom, and I was disappointed that the author never really elaborated on what these issues were or how they manifested themselves.  All of these characters need therapy for PTSD, and that suggestion comes up at the end of the novel.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

THE SON by Philipp Meyer

I would classify this book as a western but more in the vein of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian than Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.  For me, it lacks heart.  Each chapter is devoted to one of three characters, all in the McCullough family but generations apart.  Eli is the patriarch who lives 100 years, including three years with the Comanches.  After a raiding party murders his mother and siblings, he becomes their captive.  A young member of their band wisely advises him to be less passive, enabling Eli to progress from slave to apprentice, learning to launch arrows from horseback.  His son Peter’s chapters are diary entries in which Peter describes his family’s vengeful assault on a Mexican neighbor’s home—an event which haunts Peter with guilt for the rest of his life.  Peter is the conscience of the family, but the rest of the McCulloughs view him as a pariah.  The third protagonist is Jeannie, Peter’s granddaughter, who transforms the family’s struggling cattle business into an oil empire.   What stands out about this novel is the stark realism.  The author does not pull any punches when describing “how the West was won.”  That victory cost thousands of lives on all sides and decimated countless native American populations.  If the thought of reading about scalping makes you squeamish, skip this book.  However, my favorite passage in the novel is about a different aspect of human behavior that is still true today:  “The poor man prefers to associate, in mind if not in body, with the rich and successful.  He rarely allows himself to consider that his poverty and his neighbor’s riches are inextricably linked….”  It’s baffling to me that people in poverty cozy up to rich people without grasping that those riches are often gained at poor people’s expense.

Friday, December 18, 2020

DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLEY by P. D. James

I am not sure that Pride and Prejudice needs a sequel, but P.D. James has undertaken to write one, and I am all in.  Darcy and Elizabeth are all settled at Pemberley with two sons, and Bingley and Jane live nearby.  All seems smooth and cozy, but there is still the matter of Lydia, married to troublemaker Wickham.  Lydia decides to crash the annual ball at Pemberley, although Wickham is unwelcome.  They sneak upon the estate by way of the woodland, but Wickham and his friend Captain Denny exit the coach after an argument.  When Lydia and the driver hear gunshots, they hurry on to Pemberley, where a hysterical Lydia fears that her husband has been shot.  In fact, Denny is dead, and Wickham cries that he has killed him, although he may not have meant his confession to be taken literally.   The ensuing investigation is not exactly thorough, and the trial is somewhat speedy.  I kept wondering why no one questioned Lydia, and by the end I was even more puzzled as to why she apparently did not know the substance of the two men’s quarrel.  Let’s face it:  Jane Austen would never have written a murder mystery.  However, the style of this book is so Austen-like, you will almost feel that a posthumous thriller has somehow surfaced.  Darcy takes center stage throughout most of this book, rather than Elizabeth, particularly as he wrestles with mixed feelings about Wickham’s plight.  He strives to strike just the right unbiased balance in his testimony but then laments that he may have sealed Wickham’s fate.  Honestly, if P. D. James were to write another Pemberley installment, I would be on board in a heartbeat.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

NORTHANGER ABBEY by Jane Austen

Seventeen-year-old Catherine Morland joins a childless couple for a month in the town of Bath.  There she soon attracts two suitors—the delightful and handsome Henry Tilney and the loathsome and boring John Thorpe.  She tolerates Thorpe when she is desperate for a dance partner or eager for a visit to a castle she wants to tour, but her heart belongs to Tinley.  Thorpe turns out to be even more dastardly than we thought and puts Catherine, more than once, in a difficult spot.  Catherine has no experience of treachery the likes of which Thorpe is capable and thus is slow to comprehend that someone could be so intentionally deceitful.  I liked this book so much more than Mansfield Park, which took me on a long and arduous journey that at times challenged my attention span.  This novel, on the other hand, I read in two days and enjoyed every minute.  Granted, there may not be a lot of substance here, but no matter.  There are several particularly humorous sections, including one in which the author takes lighthearted potshots at readers and writers of fiction as being frivolous, even as we discover that Catherine and Tinley both love gothic novels.  This shared interest later leads Tinley to describe his family home to Catherine as a mysterious place with dark, scary passageways.  Catherine hangs on every word of his depiction, knowing it to be in jest, but then when she actually goes to Northanger Abbey, her imagination goes wild.  I can’t help wondering if Charlotte Brontë, stole part of the storyline for Jane Eyre from Jane Austen.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

LONGBOURN by Jo Baker

Longbourn is the name of the Bennet estate in Pride and Prejudice.  Jo Baker’s novel has the same setting but focuses on the servants, particularly Sarah, a teenage housemaid.  The novel opens with Sarah doing laundry, and it’s an unpleasant task, making Sarah’s hands raw.  From my perspective, this was not an auspicious beginning, but the storyline does improve, although the pace is pokey at times.  Besides Sarah, the cast of characters includes Mrs. Hill, who manages to gain Mr. Bennet’s ear from time to time, and Polly, a child who is sort of Sarah’s apprentice.  A mysterious new footman named James Smith arrives on the scene, and his backstory, although pertinent to the plot, occupies a few too many pages that particularly drag.  However, he provides the necessary spark to a novel that is mostly about women, including the five Bennet daughters.  This novel feels very Jane Austen-like, although I suppose it never would have occurred to Jane to write about the personal lives of the servants, even though their problems have much more heft than those of the Bennet family.  Not that the Bennets are unkind to the servants; they are, like Jane, just oblivious.  The novel also emphasizes what few options and freedoms the servants really had.  The particularly slimy Wickham preys on Polly, who basks in his attention, even as Sarah is constantly vigilant to make sure that Wickham doesn’t “interfere with” Polly.  Basically, though, this novel is a love story that in some ways parallels that of Lizzie and Darcy.  Not everything is fully resolved at the end, leaving me to wonder if the author expected the reader to draw a particular conclusion.  She chooses to flesh out Polly’s future in some detail but left everyone else’s somewhat unsettled.