Wednesday, January 28, 2015

THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING by Milan Kundera

This book is for readers who like a hefty dose of philosophy with their fiction.  The author addresses the reader directly on such issues as God’s digestive system and the fact that dogs were not ousted from the Garden of Eden, as humans were.  He also spends a few pages talking about how events happen only once, so that if we set goals or plan for the future, we are striving toward something we have never experienced.  Achieving the goal may not actually bring us the satisfaction or happiness that we anticipated.  (Many people would say that retirement is one such goal.)  In any case, the story takes place mostly in Czechoslovakia during the late 1960s when Russia invaded the country and stamped their brand of communism on it.  Tomas and his wife Tereza actually move to Zurich before getting out of Czechoslovakia becomes impossible.  However, Tereza decides to return to Prague, and Tomas follows her, despite the fact that he has several mistresses.  One of those is Sabina, who lives in Geneva.  She is also the mistress of Franz, but she loses interest in Franz as soon as he leaves his wife and family for her.  Tomas, a surgeon, writes a newspaper article, deemed by the authorities as subversive, and goes through a series of demotions, until he eventually becomes a window washer.  This line of work, and the widespread knowledge of his tumble in status, actually fuels his extramarital sex life.  Perhaps I would have enjoyed this book more if I had read it when it was current.  It may be a modern classic, but it’s certainly an offbeat one.  The catch phrase of the novel, “It must be,” becomes Tomas’s excuse for his philandering and his career plunge, as well as the political situation.  This acceptance of fate seems human, but I expected something a little more out of the ordinary.  One thing I did like about the book is that we learn the fate of Tereza and Tomas well before the end and then get to see how it plays out.  I don’t think I would normally want to know in advance what’s going to happen (“it must be”), but then this isn’t a normal book, and the ending is much more palatable when reached in this way.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

CLOSE YOUR EYES, HOLD HANDS by Chris Bohjalian

A nuclear plant meltdown in northern Vermont should not have left teenager Emily Shepard homeless.  However, since her parents were both alcoholics and worked at the plant (scary!), Emily is guilty by association and assumes the name Abby Bliss in order to fly under the radar for a while.  She builds an igloo out of frozen trash bags in order to survive the winter, all the while turning tricks at truck stops and indulging in a little self-mutilation.  All she really wants to do is go home, despite the fact that it’s in the fallout zone, and her parents certainly died in the explosion.  She keeps it together by assuming responsibility for a nine-year-old foster-care runaway, but her quest to keep them both as incognito as possible eventually implodes.  I never cease to marvel at how well some authors imagine the aftermath of a disaster, and Bohjalian paints a vivid picture here of a girl on her own, trying to survive, after her world has been literally blown apart.  She makes some critical errors in judgment, but she manages pretty well, given her chaotic circumstances.  I was also concerned that a teenage girl’s voice would sound too much like a valley girl and that I would find it annoying, but for the most part that was not the case.  Emily has a passion for Emily Dickinson’s poetry and immerses herself in the life of the reclusive poet whose first name she shares.  The narration jumps around a bit in time, but I didn’t find it difficult to follow, and the jagged timeline seems appropriate for a teenaged perspective on the cataclysmic events that leave her young life in disarray.  We also learn that all of Emily Dickinson’s poems can be sung to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island theme song.  Who knew?

Sunday, January 18, 2015

THE DOUBLE BIND by Chris Bohjalian

While Laurel was in college, two men attacked her while she was cycling alone in Underhill, Vermont.  Now she no longer bikes and has never returned to Underhill, although she still lives in Vermont.  The two perps, one a drifter and one a murderer, are now in prison, and Laurel is attempting to get on with her life as a social worker in a homeless shelter.  When a mentally ill homeless man named Bobbie Crocker comes to the shelter with an armload of photos that he purportedly shot, Laurel, a photography buff herself, becomes obsessed with researching Bobbie’s past.  Laurel has enough problems without burdening herself with Bobbie’s, especially since he has recently died of a stroke.  One of the photos, however, is particularly unsettling, and Laurel’s quest for answers becomes increasingly more frenzied, as she begins to avoid her roommate, her boss, and her boyfriend, for fear that they will distract her from her mission.  Meanwhile, her friends are becoming alarmed at Laurel’s behavior, but she is in a race against the clock, because other parties may be interested in Bobbie’s photos and may be willing to go to great lengths to acquire them.  I was on Laurel’s side until she started lying about her whereabouts and forgetting to shower.  This literary mystery also appears to be sort of a semi-sequel to The Great Gatsby, and I found the incorporation of iconic characters Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan in the storyline somewhat disconcerting, but not nearly as disconcerting as the ending.  I didn’t see this one coming.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

THE SECRET KEEPER by Kate Morton

Laurel, a teenager hidden in her treehouse, witnesses the arrival of a stranger who apparently knows Laurel’s mother, Dorothy.  Dorothy stabs the man to death with a cake knife but gets away with murder with a self-defense plea.  Fast forward about 50 years, and we meet Laurel again, a successful chain-smoking actress, and Dorothy is dying.  Now is the time for Laurel to dig into the story behind the murder without precipitating her mother’s death by asking too many unpleasant questions.  As with The Distant Hours, Morton tells us more than she reveals to Laurel, and I find that aspect of both books a little disconcerting—having knowledge that the protagonist is still trying to uncover.  However, I found this book much more satisfying, because the flashbacks take place during the turbulent times of WWII, without the Gothic overtones of castles and tyrannical masters of the house and so forth.  Here, instead, we look back on Dorothy’s life, questioning her sanity, as she falls in love with Jimmy, a photographer who doesn’t live up to her standards for education and affluence.  Dorothy is no better off, though, as the caretaker and companion of a wealthy old woman, but she certainly aspires to a higher station in life, as exemplified by Vivien, who lives across the street and is married to a successful writer.  The lives of Dorothy, Jimmy, and Vivien become entangled in unpredictable but intriguing ways, with the reader having to continually reevaluate the measure of each character’s reliability, honesty, strength of character, and kindheartedness.  In other words, things are not as they seem.  I enjoyed everything about this book, except perhaps for the constant gratuitous presence of cigarettes.  I had in mind two guesses as to how things would turn out, and actually, both guesses were right, whereas I had thought they would be mutually exclusive.  The title most aptly fits Dorothy, but all of the characters harbor secrets that keep the story in motion and keep the reader absorbed as the characters morph from who we think they are to their true selves.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

THE DISTANT HOURS by Kate Morton

What I loved about THE FORGOTTEN GARDEN felt like too much of a good thing is this novel—a little too gothic or too Maeve Binchy or too many plot points that hinge on coincidences.  Edie is a young woman who, together with a friend, runs a small publishing company.  In 1992 she discovers that her mother Meredith, as a 12-year-old, was evacuated during the London blitzkrieg to a castle in Kent, owned by Raymond Blythe, who wrote a renowned scary children’s book.  The other inhabitants of the castle are three unmarried adult sisters—Persephone (Percy), Seraphina (Saffy), and Juniper.  Percy is overbearing; Saffy is maternal, and Juniper shows promise to follow in her father’s footsteps as a writer, but she is a little unstable.  The narrative jumps around between 1992 and the WWII years, with several mysteries developing and being revealed to Edie along the way.  However, even Edie never finds out what really happened to Juniper’s fiancĂ© Tom, missing ever since the night he was supposed to join the sisters for dinner to announce his and Juniper’s engagement.  The narration, however, is partly Edie’s and partly omniscient, so that we readers are not left in the dark about any of the family secrets, including the cruel terms of Raymond’s will.  The author hints around at other intrigues, such as why Percy is so resentful of the housekeeper’s marriage and why Juniper becomes totally unhinged about Tom’s failure to show up and what sort of relationship Meredith had with Tom.  Edie mostly wants to know what inspired Raymond’s scary children’s story, and I had exactly zero interest in finding out about that.  No stones were left unturned, as the author wraps everything up neatly.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

FLORA by Gail Godwin

Flora and Helen are quite a pair, isolated on a mountain in North Carolina during a polio outbreak in the mid-1940s.  Flora is the kind-hearted 22-year-old cousin of Helen’s mother.  Flora is best known for crying at the drop of a hat, and she suffers from a serious case of low self-esteem, once buoyed by letters from Helen’s grandmother, Nonie, who recently passed away.  Helen is a 10-year-old brat, but everyone cuts her a lot of slack as a motherless, and now grandmotherless, child.  Her father, the local high school principal, copes by over-imbibing and by dashing off in the summers to work on secret atomic projects in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  Now that Nonie is gone, Helen needs a caretaker for this particular summer, and her father recruits Flora, who brings unwelcome good cheer and under-appreciated cooking skills.  Nothing Flora does is good enough for Helen, and then a delivery boy of Flora’s age, Finn, catches the eye of both girls.  He is basically recovering from PTSD, so that now we have our triangle of misfits.  Helen begins daydreaming that Finn will move into their home, once used as a haven for “recoverers” of all sorts.  Finn’s obvious preference for the company of Flora makes Helen even more resentful of Flora’s presence, but Helen’s frequent hurtful comments just seem to inspire Flora to show Helen more sympathy.  Helen will look back on this time period as a very boring summer for the most part, but the author hints at tragedies to come.  I really thought that all three characters deserved a break, but life isn’t fair, and I wasn’t sure what to expect in the end.  One reviewer compared this story to Ian McEwan’s Atonement, and I think there are some definite similarities, although this book does not have an unreliable narrator.  Thank heavens.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

THE STORIED LIFE OF A.J. FIKRY by Gabrielle Zevin

A.J. is a thirty-something small town bookstore owner whose wife has recently died in a car accident.  A.J. has always been a bit persnickety, but now he is downright rude, especially to a publisher’s rep named Amelia, aka Amy, who has replaced the now deceased long-time rep with whom A.J. had somewhat of a rapport.  The disappearance of a rare book valued at around half a million dollars depresses A.J. even further.  Then an abandoned toddler named Maya comes along, and A.J. decides to adopt the child rather than give her up to foster care.  I suppose this decision proves that A.J. is not completely heartless, but I found it to be way out of character.  The mystery of the missing book was certainly not spellbinding, but the novel does have its highlights, sprinkled among all the warm and fuzzy moments.  Everyone except A.J. and Amy’s mother is just too perfect.  Even A.J.’s best friend, a cop, becomes an avid reader and organizes his own book club.  Really?  A.J. provides the only saltiness to a book that is overly sweet, like a cupcake that’s heavy on the icing.  A.J. is definitely a book snob, with a preference for short stories, and I will say that I enjoyed all of A.J.’s opinions on books and authors and especially his commentary on a different short story at the beginning of each chapter.  The writing style, is not particularly elegant, with no particularly profound passages or seismic revelations, but the unpretentious style fits the comfy storyline.  One reviewer likened this novel to THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY, and I had pretty much the same opinion of that book.  I need to stay away from novels that promise too much quaintness and not enough grit.