Sunday, May 22, 2016

YEAR OF WONDERS by Geraldine Brooks

I can hardly imagine a situation more depressing than a town quarantining itself due to an outbreak of bubonic plague.  Geraldine Brooks imagines what life was like in this real-life English village in the 1600s.  Her protagonist is Anna Frith, who works as a housekeeper in the home of the town’s compassionate minister and his wife, Elinor.  Anna has lost her husband in a mining accident and her two children to the plague, but she forges on, doing what she can to protect the living and administer to the sick and dying.  She and Elinor become companions in their quest to save as many people as they can and to alleviate suffering.  When the going gets tough, though, many residents become hysterical, looking for and punishing scapegoats, trying to appease what they perceive as a vengeful God that has burdened them with this tragedy.  People in a panic tend to behave badly, and that is certainly the case here.  I wanted to like this book, and I did feel invested in the characters, particularly Anna, but how much black death and human stupidity can one reader take?  Plus, I don’t advise becoming attached to any character, because by the time Elinor and Anna start drawing some conclusions about how the infection is being spread, many denizens have already expired, and not necessarily directly from the plague.  I would say that this book is about how dire circumstances change people—either inspiring them to perform feats of heroism or reducing them to murderers whose sanity has been supplanted by superstition.  Science and medicine may have made great strides in the last three centuries, but the ugliness in human nature hasn’t changed at all.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

FATES AND FURIES by Lauren Groff

Like Gone Girl, this book has two very different halves, the first of which is the husband’s perspective, and the second half is the wife’s.  The husband is Lotto, a tall, charismatic man with a bad complexion and a very wealthy mother.  The wife is Mathilde, who is smart and striking in appearance.  They marry young, and Lotto’s buddy Chollie is convinced that the marriage will be short-lived.  Initially, Lotto struggles to make a living as an actor in New York but then finds that he has talent as a playwright.  Mathilde becomes his business manager, and in the second half we find that she is really much more than that.  The first half of the book, Lotto’s half, did not hold my interest at all.  Lotto is just a big lap dog with creativity of genius proportions. The second half, in which Mathilde is revealed to be quite multi-dimensional, is much more lively.  We’re not quite sure if she’s evil or merely opportunistic or justifiably vengeful or perhaps even a long-suffering martyr, but certainly her early life is more colorful, although not necessarily in a good way, than his.  However, the second half skips back and forth in time, seemingly more so than the first half, and I found the zigzagging timeline disconcerting and annoying, as I tried to determine what had already happened and what was still yet to come at any given point in the narrative.  The first half of the book certainly sets the stage for the second half, but I thought that the first half could have been shorter, so that the author could spend more time filling in the blanks with the contributions that Mathilde makes to the marriage and to Lotto’s career.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE by Gabriel García Márquez

Thank heavens there’s a Buendía family tree diagram at the beginning, because this novel spans about 5 generations, and the men are all named some variation of José Arcadio or Aureliano.  The women, although they certainly take a backseat to the men in this story, are much easier to differentiate, and several of the women in the family tree are mistresses.  In one case, two brothers have the same mistress, so that their children are half-siblings.  Plus, in one case, a male character chooses a 9-year-old for his wife, and fortunately her parents make her wait until she reaches puberty to marry.  Then there are a couple of instances where a nephew has a thing for his aunt.  What a family!  The story takes place in the fictional town of Macondo, and sometimes it seems that there aren’t enough non-Buendía residents there to keep the population genetically diverse.  Then we have characters who routinely spend years sequestered in a room reading scholarly documents or sitting under a chestnut tree—voluntarily.  I’m not really a fan of magical realism, especially this sort with flying carpets and people who live past 140 years old.  The fantasy aspects just contributed to my overall inability to feel any sort of connection to the characters.  The whole thing seemed quite absurd and confusing to me.  I wish there were at least one character who stood out for me or who seemed particularly heroic or even particularly tragic, but unfortunately, they all ran together into one indecipherable heap.  I’ve wanted to read this book since Gabriel García Marquez died a couple of years ago, but I can’t say that it was time well spent.  At least I can check it off my list now.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

AGE OF IRON by J.M. Coetzee

Mrs. Curren is dying of breast cancer, and, worse yet, she is a liberal-minded white woman living in South Africa during apartheid.  The novel is mostly an expression of her thoughts in the form of a letter to her daughter, who is married with children in the U.S. and unaware of her mother’s terminal condition.  A homeless alcoholic, Mr. Vercueil, who, along with his dog, has camped out near her house, becomes Mrs. Curren’s handyman, companion, and caregiver.  Her black maid, Florence, has a teenage son who has joined the resistance effort.  Mrs. Curren is torn between her enormous revulsion at the government’s enforcement of apartheid and her concern for the safety of the young people involved in the rebellion.  She would like to make a statement against apartheid by perhaps hastening her own death in a violent manner, but that would solve nothing.  The fact that she has taken on a homeless alcoholic as her confidant is a testament to her extreme loneliness and desperation.  Vercueil, for his part, seems neutral politically and unredeemable socially, but he’s all she has, and he’s better than nothing.  In fact, he’s a lot better, because he seems completely non-judgmental, and a family member would probably have a lot to say about an elderly woman living alone and consuming vast quantities of pain meds.  Mrs. Curren is a character whose outrage is so palpable that I felt immense empathy for her.  In fact, this is my first Coetzee novel, published in 1990 while apartheid was very much still in effect, and it obviously represents the South African author’s personal stand against apartheid, using the power of the pen to try to enact positive change.  I expect that Mrs. Curren’s dilemma and guilt come straight from his own personal conscience, grappling with a situation that was impossible to bear and simultaneously dangerous to oppose.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING by Dave Eggers

Alan Clay needs to resurrect his career so that he can pay off some unsavory loans and finish putting his daughter through college.  He hopes he can do that as a member of a team that is pitching IT services to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia for a splashy new city—King Abdullah Economic City or KAEC.  Jet-lagged and unable to sleep when he arrives, he misses the shuttle to the site and employs young Yousef in a beat-up Chevy Caprice to drive him there.  Yousef starts diminishing Alan’s expectations by scoffing at the idea of KAEC, which he seriously doubts will ever be completed and reporting that the king is in Yemen.  Alan finds his team in an insufferably hot tent without wifi or food, preparing for a holographic presentation that apparently has no audience.  Day after day, the waiting for the king continues, and Alan soon joins Yousef in thinking that KAEC is a sham.  Meanwhile, Alan raggedly lances a growth on his back, gets drunk on moonshine, attends a Danish embassy party where everyone dives into the pool to retrieve black-market pills, and goes wolf hunting in the country with Yousef.  Basically, Alan is a man adrift making one last ditch effort to set everything in his life back on track but is thwarted by a foreign culture that has no respect for his time and whose denizens flagrantly disregard the prohibitions of an oppressive government.  In some ways this book was a breath of fresh (desert) air, since it’s so different from anything I’ve read lately.  The waiting game could have been interminably demoralizing and uneventful, but Alan’s musings and escapades make this book anything but dull.  Alan’s musings include family memories and rehashes of his failed business ventures, which do not bode well for the current one.  In fact, Alan himself is not exactly punctual, causing me to fear that he may miss his audience with the king if and when the king finally puts in an appearance at his eponymous city.  This not knowing is what provides suspense, but Alan’s adventures provide ample entertainment and food for thought along the way.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

YOU SHALL KNOW OUR VELOCITY! by Dave Eggers

Though not his first book, this is Dave Eggers’ first novel, and I hope that the subsequent ones show a little maturity for both the author and his characters.  This is sort of a 21st century version of Kerouac’s On the Road, minus the drugs and alcohol.  Mercifully, it spans only one manic week, but the setting is Senegal, Morocco, Estonia, and Latvia, and that’s worth something—as a travelogue, if nothing else.  Will and his pal Hand are traveling as far as they can in a week and giving away $32,000 in the process.  They become very frustrated at how long it takes to get from point to point, but all in all, they manage to pack quite a lot of activity into a short period of time, doing without sleep or bathing.  The writing style matches the frenetic pace of the story, but I thought it was borderline silly.  Occasionally the characters find themselves in scary situations, but mostly their madcap misadventures are pretty harmless.  There are a few LOL moments, especially when the two guys are reminiscing about their childhood aspiration to grow up to be Hollywood stuntmen.  They continue to practice for this vocation while on the trip, with mixed results.  At the other end of the spectrum, we find that these guys were perpetrators of some pretty serious animal cruelty in their youth, reminding us that they’re not as generous and warm-hearted as we might like to think.  I felt that they were divesting themselves of the money as a way to shed their grief over the death of their buddy Jack.  They do come up with some crazy but creative ideas for how to distribute the money, even as they deliberate as to who is worthy to receive a payout.  Still, a novel about two American guys making fools of themselves in foreign countries, behaving more like adolescents than grown men in their late twenties, is not really my idea of a great read.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

THE MARRIAGE PLOT by Jeffrey Eugenides

Mitchell, Leonard, and Madeleine are Brown University students in the 1980s, and Mitchell is the odd man out.  He’s in love with Madeleine, but she only has eyes for Leonard, who is undergoing treatment for manic depression.  Leonard is smart, handsome, and poor, while Madeleine is smart, beautiful, and rich.  I could never quite fathom what the well-adjusted Madeleine sees in Leonard, as she is not a natural caretaker, and I attribute my bewilderment to a failing of the author for not making Leonard a whole lot more charismatic.  Mitchell, on the other hand, who is considering divinity school but not joining the ministry, seems pretty vanilla until we get Leonard’s take on Mitchell as a young Tom Waits, which turned my opinion 180 degrees to the good.  For me, that’s the point at which Mitchell comes alive.  After college, while Madeleine and Leonard are wallowing in despair in Cape Cod, Mitchell sets out with his friend Larry on a pilgrimage to India, by way of Paris and Athens.  My favorite part of the novel is after Mitchell and Larry part ways, and Mitchell becomes a volunteer at a charity hospital in Calcutta.  Here, I think Eugenides does an excellent job of describing Mitchell’s struggle between his squeamishness over the condition of the patients and his profound desire to do something worthwhile.   Dispensing medications, shunning rickshaws, and chastising his friend Mike for his relationship with a 17-year-old Thai girl, he strives not to be the typical American tourist. Unfortunately, this section has to end, and we have to return to the Madeleine/Leonard story, which seems to be a rehash of Leonard’s battle with mental illness and Madeleine’s questioning of whether she is up to the task of coping with said battle.  Mitchell is the only character whose self-awareness actually grows in this novel, and I would have liked this book more if there had been more Mitchell and less Madeleine.