Wednesday, March 21, 2018

THE FIG EATER by Jody Shields

I really enjoyed most of this murder mystery that takes place in 1910 Vienna.  It’s full of gypsy lore and superstitions, giving it a sinister flavor that just enhances the rather detached tone of the novel.  However, the ending is extremely abrupt and unsatisfying with loose ends galore.  The book opens with a young woman named Dora having been murdered, with pieces of an undigested fig having been found in her stomach.  A man known simply as the Inspector is in charge of investigating the crime, but his wife Erszébet decides to undertake her own parallel investigation on the side.  She even locates a key witness before her husband does but never tells him where to find this witness.  Erszébet is fascinated by the fig and determines exactly what type of fig it is, simply from its appearance.  All I can say to this is Dora apparently didn’t chew up her food very well before being murdered.  There are lots of other clues and leads for both the Inspector and his wife to follow up on, but none of these enigmas are resolved at the end of the novel.  I don’t need for everything to be tidied up at the end, but in this case I’m not sure if these various pieces of evidence are red herrings or teasers or if the author just didn’t know what to do with them.  Another possibility is that the reader is supposed to draw some conclusions that certainly were not obvious to me.  That said, sometimes the journey is more worthwhile than the destination, and this novel has a unique aura that makes it a journey worth taking.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018


This much we know is true:  Henry is a 39-year-old dentist, married to Carol, and his older brother Nathan is a writer.  Everything else is fluid.  In the first section Henry has a heart condition, and his medication has rendered him impotent.  Surgery will resolve the heart condition, but the surgery is not without risk.  However, Henry is not sure life is worth living without sex—not sex with his wife but with his assistant.  Then the second section completely contradicts the outcome of the first section.  What is going on here?  Alternate realities?  Parallel universes?  In any case, Henry is now in Israel, having abandoned his family to become an “authentic Jew.”  The third section is the shortest and wildest—about hijacking a plane.  The fourth section is yet another contradiction but explains the first three sections—maybe.  I would give this novel 5 stars if it didn’t get bogged down occasionally.  Roth is a fantastic writer, even if he is obsessed with sex and being Jewish.  The subject matter is his usual stuff, but the format and twistiness are not, and they are what make this novel special.  If you’ve been put off or disappointed with his novels in the past, consider this one or The Plot Against America.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

PAPERBOY by Vince Vawter

This novel may be more suited to young readers, but I couldn’t resist the story of an 11-year-old paperboy in 1959 in my hometown of Memphis.  My brother also had a paper route for the Memphis Press-Scimitar and threw the afternoon papers from his Spyder bike with a banana seat.  I think my brother dreaded collecting from his customers almost as much as the boy in this novel did, although not for the same reason.  In this book, the paperboy in question has a stuttering problem, which makes conversation, with adults or other kids, difficult.  Also, he is paperboy for only a month, subbing for a friend who is spending the month of July on his grandparents’ farm.  Most of his customers leave their payments in an envelope, but two of the ones he has to speak with are his favorites.  One is a beautiful woman with a drinking problem and an abusive husband.  The other is a former seaman with a vast collection of books and an unusual manner of speaking.  The boy harvests some life lessons from encounters with these two customers, as well as from his black housekeeper/babysitter, whom he calls Mam.  Both the boy and Mam have an impetuous streak, which doesn’t always serve them well.  The most important lesson, though, is one about love, and the paperboy figures that one out for himself.  This was a nostalgia trip worth taking, as well as a reminder that the 1950s were not as rosy as some people think.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

LUCKY BOY by Shanthi Sekaran

Kavya and Rishi are a young married couple in Berkeley, trying a little too hard to have a child of their own.  They finally opt for adoption.  Soli is a Mexican teenager who, after a harrowing journey, enters the U.S. illegally and then finds herself pregnant.  The storyline then becomes pretty predictable, as Soli lands in a detention center, and her son Ignacio enters the foster home system.  Eventually, Ignacio is placed with Kavya and Rishi, who are aware that his biological mother is very much alive and may take him back at any time.  This is a heart-wrenching story, and I thought I knew how it would turn out.  I was completely wrong, but I liked my ending better.  In fact, I disliked the ending so much that it tainted the entire book for me.  This is mostly Kavya’s story, but I didn’t find it to be that original.  Soli’s story, on the other hand, is one of perseverance and setbacks, as she negotiates the twists and turns of being an undocumented immigrant in a sometimes hostile country.  Actually, she stumbles upon some really compassionate and helpful people, but her naiveté puts her in some disastrous situations.  Ultimately, the most disappointing character is Silvia, Soli’s cousin, who gives Soli some good advice and a place to live but then shows the worst possible judgment when Soli turns to her in an emergency.  I found Silvia’s behavior in this critical section of the novel to be inconsistent with her behavior up to that point.  When Soli most needs her help, Silvia abandons her own advice of keeping a low profile and goes off the rails, with the expected consequences.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018


Most of this novel is buildup to John Brown’s historic raid on the Harper’s Ferry armory in 1859.  Some reviewers have made this book sound entertaining, but for me it was anything but.  Henry Shackleford is the young narrator—a slave whose father dies in a barroom skirmish initiated by John Brown, who mistakes Henry for a girl.  For the next 300+ pages, Henry, always in a dress but gender-neutrally nicknamed Onion, accompanies John Brown in his Midwestern crusade to recruit an army of abolitionists.  Then nothing much happens, until Onion goes to Virginia to help prepare for the raid and “hive” the slaves into Brown’s rebellion.  If ever there was a book with too much dialog and not enough action, this is it.  As a history lesson, it has value, but the arduous task of reading it was a tedious undertaking.  I think I could have read the beginning and the end and not missed anything.  The most interesting aspect of this novel to me was the choice of a boy in a dress as the narrator.  This case of mistaken gender, which morphs into more of a ruse, allows the narrator to view most of the action without actually participating.  Then my question is why didn’t the author just make the narrator a girl, but perhaps he felt more comfortable with a male narrator who never actually has to wield a weapon.  The bottom line is that the editor of this book should have recommended shaving about 200 pages from the finished product. 

Sunday, February 18, 2018


This memoir is the clear-eyed story of a white woman, Ruth, raising her 12 children, in the projects in Brooklyn.  Both of her husbands were black, but Ruth was raised as an Orthodox Jew, mostly in Virginia.  She ran off to New York as a teenager, abandoning her beloved mother and sister but escaping her abusive father.  Both of her husbands predeceased all of their children, leaving behind their devastated wife with a house full of children to support and raise.  This book is Ruth’s story, as told with love, humor, and admiration by son James.  He devotes minimal coverage to his siblings, all of whom graduated from college and had successful careers.  Ruth, having buried her past completely, was a tough nut to crack, and James quit a lucrative job in journalism in order to devote himself to extracting Ruth’s story.  James himself was somewhat of a problem child as a teenager and spent 3 summers with his stepsister’s family in Harlem.  There he managed to straighten himself out, just by discovering and immersing himself in the kind of life he finally realized was not exactly glamorous.  Ruth may not have been a saint herself, but she certainly comes across as one.  I am so glad this was not a tearjerker.  It’s a tale of triumph, peppered with no-nonsense admonitions from mother to children to pay attention to what she considered to be important—school and church, not money.  Her children were her primary legacy, but after she raised all twelve of them, she never slowed down, becoming involved in the community.  She was a pretty smart cookie and earned her own degree at the age of 65.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018


Jojo is a 13-year-old boy whose black mother, Leonie, is a druggie and whose white father, Michael, is in prison.  He lives with his grandparents in coastal Mississippi, along with his toddler sister, Kayla, but his unreliable mother pops in and out.  When Leonie learns that Michael is about to be released, she and her equally messed up friend Misty take the kids to Parchman to pick him up.  We know that this trip is going to be disastrous and just read with our fingers crossed that Jojo and Kayla survive.  There are two things that I did not like about this book.  First and foremost, it is, as you can imagine, immeasurably depressing.  To say that Leonie is a bad mother is an understatement, as she is both neglectful and abusive.  She only has eyes for Michael, and neither has any business being a parent.  The other aspect that did not appeal to me is the magical realism.  Two dead people are visible to some of the characters.  One is Given, Leonie’s brother, who was killed by Michael’s cousin.  Leonie has never recovered from his loss and seems to care more about him than her children, who are very much alive.  The other ghost is Richie, a boy who knew Jojo’s grandfather in prison and wants to get to the heart of what happened there.  I just really did not understand the significance of these ghosts and why they were necessary to the story.  There is some other voodoo (my word, not the author’s) going on, such as lucky talismans and graveyard stones, and I was OK with those, since they seemed to be perhaps indicative of the culture.  The ghosts, though, for me, detracted from the seriousness of the story and lent it an air of mythology that turned me off.   They even have full-on conversations with living characters.  Perhaps I would have been more accepting of silent ghosts.  In any case, I found her earlier novel, Salvage the Bones, to be a much better read.