Wednesday, October 26, 2016

THE DANISH GIRL by David Ebershoff

Sex reassignment surgery in 1930?  Yes, indeed.  Einar Wegener is Greta Waud’s husgand but identifies as a woman named Lili.  Perhaps the most interesting facet of this novel, inspired by a true story, is that Greta encourages the emergence of Lili.  Both Einar and Greta are painters, and Lili becomes a muse and a model for Greta’s work.  Einar visits several physicians for help, including one who recommends a lobotomy, as he becomes more and more despairing of ever living fully as a woman.  Finally Greta sends him to a women’s clinic in Germany, where at first he is refused admittance because he is a man.  Einar figuratively “dies” after the sex reassignment surgery so that Lili can completely divest herself of him and live freely as a woman.  Ebershoff depicts Einar/Lili as possibly having a multiple personality disorder and gives Einar/Lili non-functioning ovaries from birth.  I would have preferred that the author not attribute Einar’s identifying as a woman to any physical or mental anomalies.  (In truth, no one really knows whether Einar had ovaries or an additional X chromosome.)  The big story here, though, is how a marriage can survive and even flourish when a wife never knows if she is going to wake up beside a man or a woman.  Greta amazingly embraces both Einar and Lili but recognizes that Lili must at some point “bury” Einar.  I found it particularly interesting that Greta is able to obtain a divorce from Einar, citing the fact that he no longer exists after the operation.  Greta wants him also to be declared dead, but then where did Lili spring from?  Despite the intriguing nature of the story, I found the pacing to be slow, particularly during Lili’s recovery.  Also, Einar comes off a little flat.  Surely there is something about him that attracts Greta in the first place.  More intriguing is the question of why Einar chose Greta as a partner, unless he intuited that she would be his ally and champion when he needed her most.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

GENEROSITY by Richard Powers

“Generosity” is the nickname that her fellow students give to Thassadit Amzwar.  Thassa possesses a contagious exuberance that is at odds with the tragedies she has experienced as a refugee from civil war in Algeria.  Russell Stone is the hapless adjunct professor conducting the nonfiction creative writing class in which Thassa is a force of jubilation that cannot be denied.  When a genetic enhancement scientist gets wind of the fact that Thassa may have a genetic predisposition toward happiness, all hell breaks loose.  Her sudden notoriety on social media and in the press threatens finally to undo her. Russell, meanwhile, has enlisted the help of college counselor Candace Weld, to help him informally evaluate Thassa, but Candace soon finds that she cannot befriend Thassa and still retain her unbiased position.  There are several sticky subjects here.  At what point does screening for potentially devastating genetically-transmitted diseases veer into the controversial territory of human engineering?  Russell had some success as a published author of nonfiction stories but then caused unforeseen ramifications for the subjects of his stories.  Similarly, Thassa’s exposure unleashes a barrage of paparazzi, hate-mailers, spiritual seekers, and just plain crazy people.   Russell retreats from writing, but retreating from life for Thassa is much more difficult.  Candace’s dilemma seems the most unfair and perhaps a little contrived, since she is never really Thassa’s therapist.  I loved The Echo Maker, but I struggled with this book and could not decipher the ending at all.  It is, however,  more layman-friendly in the genetics department than The Gold Bug Variations—and a lot shorter.  I loved the melancholy Russell and his unexpected delight with the response from his first class, but I did not feel the uplifting presence of Thassa that is central to the story.

Sunday, October 16, 2016


This book is not for the faint of heart.  It is extremely challenging for its complex subject matter:  DNA, classical music patterns, and computer programming.  As a former software developer and infrequent pianist who took a genetics course in college, I have to say that only the computer stuff made sense, although it was a little farfetched.  I tried to understand the genetic research issues and their relationship to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, but I found myself mostly reading these passages without any real comprehension.  From a plot standpoint, though, this book reminded me of A.S. Byatt’s Possession, with its two love stories, one in the past and one in the present.  Stuart Ressler was a genetic scientist back in the 1950s and resurfaces in the 1980s, working graveyard shift as a data processing operator.  His young friend and coworker, Franklin Todd, who lacks only his dissertation on an obscure painter to obtain a Ph.D. in art history, becomes involved with our narrator, Jan O’Deigh, who is possibly wasting her mental faculties as a research librarian.  The mystery, if you want to call it that, is what drove Stuart to abandon his genetic research for such a mundane position.  Jan and Frank delve into Stuart’s past, and Stuart eventually shares his story of a love affair with a married coworker and his introduction to a piece of music that seemingly parallels the genetic code in some ways.  One intriguing twist in this book about cell reproduction is that neither of the women can bear children.  The author makes the point several times that evolution is all about a species’ reproduction rate being higher than its death rate, and yet he makes two of his main characters unable to reproduce.  My take on this is that he’s saying that, especially for humans, there’s a whole lot more to life than passing down one’s inheritable characteristics, and our knowledge of that fact is one of the many attributes that distinguish us from other life forms.  Jan, though, mentions a different distinguishing quality in this passage:  “the ability to step out of the food chain and, however momentarily, refuse to compete.”

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

THE WIDOW by Fiona Barton

What’s inside the head of a woman who discovers that her husband Glen has a thing for child pornography and may have kidnapped a little girl?  Jean Taylor is that woman and becomes a widow when her husband is hit by a bus and dies.  This is another novel with a non-sequential timeline, so revelations come in a manner that provides optimal suspense, as we look back on Jean and Glen’s marriage.  Jean has an obsession with children also, and Glen has a miniscule sperm count.  He has refused to consider adoption, artificial insemination, or a surrogate, so why doesn’t Jean just leave him?  For one thing, she comes across as a woman with a self-esteem problem, and then when Glen becomes a suspect, she decides to stand by her man, even giving him a false alibi.  The supporting characters are a cop who can’t solve the crime but also can’t stop thinking about it, and a female reporter who hopes to get Jean to spill the beans, now that Glen is no longer alive to intervene.  Jean’s reliability as a narrator is questionable, sweeping Glen’s porn addition under the rug and referring to it as “his nonsense.”  She’s an enigma of the first order, and, with her fixation on children, we can’t help wondering what her role may have been in the abduction.  Did she do it?  Did she compel Glen to do it?  And it’s not even certain whether she and Glen are even involved in the girl’s disappearance at all.  Jean may be under Glen’s spell, but she’s not fragile.  She becomes even tougher as she has to deal with hovering reporters and TV crews, endless hate mail, and frequent questioning by the police.  Is she as clueless as she appears to be, or sly as a fox?

Wednesday, October 5, 2016


Elena and Lila are girls growing up in Naples, Italy, in the 1950s.  Both come from poor families, and both are excellent students.  Clearly, Lila is more gifted, but her formal education ends with elementary school, while Elena continues on through middle school and high school.  Still, Elena feels inferior to Lila in both appearance and intelligence.  She has a few minor self-esteem breakthroughs, especially when she spends a summer helping out at a B&B on the island of Ischia.  However, that adventure ends badly, through no fault of her own.  She suffers through the usual adolescent angst, ignoring the boy she likes and choosing the boy who adores her.  Lila, on the other hand, has bigger problems.  A wealthy but unpleasant young man pursues her, but she fends him off, despite pressure from her parents to accept him.  There’s only one way out of this predicament, and that is to find another wealthy boy who is more tolerable.  Since Elena is a first-person narrator, I assumed that the brilliant friend was Lila, but Elena proves herself to be no slouch academically and more savvy about what’s important, although Lila seems to be making the best of a very unfortunate situation.  I did not particularly enjoy this book, and so I have mixed feelings about reading the other three books in the series.  On the one hand, I’m not wild about attempting to reacquaint myself with a huge cast of characters, although the index at the beginning does help.  On the other hand, I’m curious about what happens to the relationship between these two girls whose lives are sharply diverging as they approach adulthood.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

THE LOST DAUGHTER by Elena Ferrante

Leda’s two grown daughters have moved to Toronto to live with their father, and Leda is feeling surprisingly unburdened.  While at the beach on vacation, she encounters a beautiful young woman, Nina, with her small daughter Elena and a bunch of extended family members.  This is a very short novel, dark and full of shocking revelations, and I don’t want to give too much away.  Some of the revelations come up in conversation, and at first I wondered if Leda was making stuff up.  Suffice it to say that this novel is about two women for whom motherhood is not all sweetness and light.  They both try to maintain their responsibilities to their children while retaining some sense of self, with limited success.  In fact, they lean so far in the selfishness direction that they risk more than just a few raised eyebrows from family and friends in response to their actions.  Leda readily admits that she can’t really explain why she’s done some of the things she’s done, while Nina seems to be stuck in an unhappy marriage.  Nina may be somewhat obscure, but Leda is the real enigma here, though.  She struck me as just being in an eternally bad mood, doing mean things for no apparent reason.  Even though, she’s the narrator, I never quite figured out what made her tick.  She illuminates one small piece of the puzzle late in the novel, which just left me even more puzzled than ever.  And who is The Lost Daughter?  Leda does enlighten us a bit about her own childhood, and I assume that she is the title character, for she is indeed lost, in many ways, but especially to herself, as exemplified by her inability to explain her own behavior.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

MODERN LOVERS by Emma Straub

The “lovers” in this novel are three Brooklyn couples:  Zoe and Jane, whose marriage has lost its luster; Elizabeth and Andrew, who were fine (sort of) until Zoe and Jane started having issues; and Ruby and Harry, the teenage offspring of the aforementioned couples.  Elizabeth, Zoe, and Andrew were all in a rock band at one time, along with the now-deceased Lydia, who had a successful solo career.  A biopic of Lydia’s life needs the band’s consent to use their anthem and depict them in the movie.  Andrew is the lone holdout, and later we learn why.  He and Elizabeth have a complicated marriage.  He has family money and has never really brought in any income, while Elizabeth thrives as a real estate agent.  When Andrew becomes involved with a shady new-age guru and his entourage, Elizabeth becomes suspicious about what exactly he’s gotten himself into.  Elizabeth has always had sort of a thing for Zoe and leans on her as a confidante, creating friction with Jane.  Ruby and Harry have known each other their entire lives but start to really connect in an SAT prep class.  Everyone here needs couples therapy, except Ruby and Harry, who simply aren’t very wise, but who was at that age?  Late in the novel Elizabeth and Andrew swap admissions of betrayal, and I found hers to be much more egregious than his.  Basically, the adults in this novel are all well-adjusted on the outside and neurotic on the inside.  If you’re looking for life lessons or substance, you might be disappointed in this book, but I found it very readable, and although I might be in the minority, I liked the ending.