Wednesday, January 17, 2018

NEWS OF THE WORLD by Paulette Jiles

Captain Jefferson Kidd is over seventy years old and travels post-Civil War Texas reading news articles to small-town residents willing to spend a dime to hear him.  He’s bored and lonely, but he reluctantly takes on the task of delivering a 10-year-old girl, Johanna, held captive by the Kiowa since she was 6, to her aunt and uncle 400 miles away.  The Kiowa killed her parents and younger sister during the raid in which Johanna was abducted.  Having been uprooted a second time, Johanna is not a happy camper.  This novel is a rollicking ride as this unlikely pair become acquainted, thanks to endless patience and understanding on the Captain’s part.  A good old-fashioned shootout along the way is the highlight of their journey, but there are several adventures, shady characters, and downright cruel people.  At just over 200 pages, this book is a very fast read and left me wanting more from this author, but, alas, I’ve read three others of hers already.  Although the plot is somewhat formulaic, this may be my favorite Jiles novel so far.  Johanna is a noble savage of sorts, and the Captain shares his wise musings throughout:
“The boys all grow up together and then they become young men and they fight, at first in play, and then somebody gets hurt, and before you know it the revenge drama is on.”

My favorite conflict in the novel, though, is between the Captain and audience members in every town who bait him to take sides in a heated political debate.  He demurs time and time again, but he can’t prevent the ensuing mayhem.  When it’s time to skedaddle in the dead of night, Johanna rolls with it, more accustomed to a night on the road than a night in a hotel.  She may be a handful, but she’s plucky and has some tricks up her sleeve, proving to the Captain that he can be both student and teacher.

Monday, January 15, 2018

STORMY WEATHER by Paulette Jiles

Jeanine Stoddard is a daddy’s girl, but her father has a drinking problem, then a gambling problem, and finally a statutory rape problem.  He moves his family all over Texas, chasing work in the oil business during the Depression.  Eventually, Jeanine, her three sisters, and their mother move back to the old Tolliver farm, which has been in her family for generations.  However, the farm is in disrepair and has no electricity or indoor plumbing.  Jeanine takes it upon herself to make the place livable, while her older sister gets a job to bring in some much needed cash.  Meanwhile, their mother Elizabeth recklessly invests their meager savings in an oil venture, and at the same time the youngest daughter Bea suffers a terrible accident, requiring very expensive surgery.  This may sound like your typical hard luck story, but it really isn’t.  By the time she is 21, Jeanine finds herself with two suitors who couldn’t be more different.  Milton Brown is a stuttering journalist who aspires to a radio career.  His side of any conversation is hysterical, and I’m not talking about the stuttering.  He has an overblown speaking style that injects some lightheartedness into a world of poverty and struggle.  The other man in her life is Ross Everett, a rancher raising his son alone after his wife died from complications brought on by the last dust storm.  Jeanine is no shrinking violet and handles both men with aplomb.  She is a compelling character, and her life doesn’t lack for adventures—tractor accidents, oil wells, horse races, and yes, another terrifying dust storm.  I admire her and all the women in her family who are plucky and ever optimistic, despite the difficult circumstances in which they find themselves.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi

Again, we have a story that deserves to be told, but I did not care for the manner in which it was told.  This novel is multi-generational in the extreme, and each character gets basically one chapter of coverage.  The cascade of characters all descend from two half-sisters, but I found it very hard to keep track of them all, although each successive generation’s story provides some followup on the lives of his or her mother and/or father.  The book begins with one of the sisters, an African woman, becoming the second wife (unbeknownst to the first wife) of a white slavetrader.  Her progeny stay in Africa until the 20th century, but her half-sister is sold into slavery and sent to the U.S.  Each chapter jumps at least a decade, so that we follow slaves being held in a dungeon in western Africa, slaves in the American South, escaped slaves, freed slaves, post-Civil War migration to the North, Harlem during the Jazz Age, black junkies in the Civil Rights era, and ultimately life in the 21st century.  Interleaved with these stories, many of which are brutally tragic, are the chapters about the lives of the first sister’s offspring in Africa.  I found the format to be choppy and confusing.  I especially found it difficult to bond with characters that I knew I would be leaving at the end of the chapter.  The author had a lot of ground to cover, and I can see how this format allowed her to hurtle through history, but I didn’t look forward to picking this book up to resume reading when I knew that the characters I had just gotten acquainted with were no longer going to receive any attention.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

MRS. LINCOLN'S DRESSMAKER by Jennifer Chiaverini

Elizabeth Keckley is a former slave who worked hard to buy freedom for herself and her son.  Now she’s an accomplished seamstress in the nation’s capital as the country teeters toward civil war.  Her beautiful work brings her to the attention of Mary Todd Lincoln, and soon she is dressing the First Lady and occasionally trying to tame the President’s unruly hair.  As frivolous as this premise may sound, the story is really quite serious, as Elizabeth becomes Mrs. Lincoln’s confidante and helps soothe her grief when the Lincolns lose their beloved son Willie.  Elizabeth’s friendship becomes even more important after the President’s assassination, as Mrs. Lincoln is devastated and almost destitute.  Elizabeth goes too far in her efforts to assist Mrs. Lincoln, at the expense of her own welfare.  Elizabeth generally gives Mrs. Lincoln excellent advice, which Mrs. Lincoln often fails to follow, but Elizabeth makes some monumentally poor decisions for her own life, one of which costs her almost everything but makes this book possible.  Elizabeth’s story is one worth telling, deserving of better treatment, but this novel reads like very dry non-fiction.  The history covered here is mostly familiar, and the author doesn’t bring any suspense to Elizabeth’s story, either, which is relatively unknown.  Plus, the prose is pretty basic and uninspired.  Gore Vidal’s Lincoln is a better read, although longer and denser.  And, yes, Elizabeth Keckley appears in that novel as well.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

'ROUND MIDNIGHT by Laura McBride

Although this one may not be as captivating as We Are Called to Rise, Laura McBride has brought us another heartfelt story, this time about four women, all of whom live in Las Vegas.  June and her husband Del own the El Capitan casino in the 1950s, but when June finds herself pregnant with her second child, she fears that the father may be their headline singer, Eddie Knox.  A decade or so later, a beautiful woman named Honorata from the Philippines hits a big jackpot at the El Capitan and escapes an unpleasant arranged marriage that never actually took place.  Engracia is an undocumented Mexican maid who finds herself in the middle of a potentially violent domestic situation.  Finally, there’s Coral, whose parentage is a mystery to her.   I would say that June and Coral are searching, while Engracia and Honorata are, to some degree, hiding.  They all eventually cross paths, making unexpected connections.  All four women become mothers at some point, and Coral is the only one not harboring a secret with regard to her children.  My only complaint is that, although I enjoyed reading all of their stories, I never became fully invested in any of these characters.  I liked them, admired them for their principles and courage, and rooted for them, but I don’t feel that I ever really completely connected with them.  In each case, I couldn’t really relate to the difficult and sometimes devastating life experiences that they endured, but I was definitely proud of them.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

THE LUMINARIES by Eleanor Catton

It’s 1867, and Walter Moody has just arrived in Hokitika, New Zealand, and aims to pan for gold.  As he settles into the smoking room of the semi-shabby Crown Hotel, he finds that he has disturbed a private meeting of twelve men.  We will soon discover, through the paraphrased words of shipping agent Thomas Balfour, that the meeting concerns three unusual events that all happened on the same day two weeks prior.  One man died, one man disappeared, and a prostitute apparently attempted suicide via opium overdose.  Gradually, the stories of these three people unfold, along with those of the twelve men and Walter Moody himself.  There are multiple mysteries here, and, with these 16 characters plus several more, the storyline becomes quite convoluted.  Not only are the characters’ stories a bit confusing, but props get moved around and change owners frequently—dresses with gold hidden in the seams, several misplaced cargo items, assorted paperwork, and, of course, some gold treasure.  This is a very long book, so that there’s plenty of time to get everything sorted out, but I have to confess that I still have a few important unanswered questions, including the identity of a murderer.  In any case, I loved this book, even if I didn’t quite put all the pieces together.  The whole zodiac theme was lost on me as well, but somehow I don’t think that angle was really pertinent to the plot.  What’s not to love when you have great writing, plus séances, pistol shots, bloody bodies jumping out of crates, long lost relatives, false identities, a villainous sea captain with a facial scar, an unsigned bequest, and a sinister widow with a checkered past laying claim to her husband’s fortune?  This is a really good yarn whose mood felt to me like that of an American western, churned with a bit of sea salt to spice it up.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

THE SEA by John Banville

Max Morden has returned to a coastal villa that once was the summer residence of childhood playmates Chloe Grace and her mute twin brother Myles.  The Grace family appealed to Max not only because they were more affluent than his own family but also because young Max was initially attracted to Mrs. Grace.  This infatuation eventually dwindled as his attraction to Chloe grew.  The narrative goes back and forth in time, and in the present Max is still reeling from the death of his wife, Anna.  Several important revelations appear late in the novel, including the disclosure of a character’s identity, which I had already figured out.  The big question all along is what happened to Chloe and Myles.  We do find out the answer to that question, sort of.  However, there are lots of other dangling questions, including the subject of an argument between two women at dinner.  This omission seems like a copout to me.  The author also teases us with some snippets of another conversation that are intended to mislead us, as well as the other characters who overhear the conversation.  I found this to be a little cheesy as well.  He could have at least made the snippets a little more ambiguous.  After finishing the novel, I reread this section, and I’m even more baffled than ever, wondering if the snippets of conversation are not indicative of the rest of the conversation or if one of the participants in the conversation is not being truthful.  Myles’s inability to speak is never explained, either.  Perhaps the storyline just demanded his silence.  This novel beat out Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Julian Barnes’s Arthur and George for the 2005 Booker Prize, but I’m not sure why.  Perhaps the judges were swayed by the author’s prodigious vocabulary.  I finally dug out my ancient paperback dictionary, but many of the unfamiliar words were not there.  The upside is that now I understand the difference between the verbs “blanch” and “blench”—more or less.