Wednesday, November 30, 2016

THE LAST FLIGHT OF POXL WEST by Daniel Torday

Eli is a teenager who adores his uncle, Poxl West, who is not really a relative but is more of a grandfather figure to Eli.  When Poxl writes a memoir of his experiences during WWII, Eli is miffed that he never receives his signed copy, but still he reads the book several times and uses it as a basis for school assignments.  This novel contains the entire text of Poxl’s memoir, and this book-within-a-book is the real meat of this novel.  Poxl, a Jew, flees Czechoslovakia for the Netherlands as a young man, at the behest of his father, but Poxl’s real impetus is the shock of seeing his mother with her lover.  Virtually the same thing happens in the Netherlands, where he escapes to England after seeing his prostitute girlfriend Francoise with another man.  He occupies himself in London as a civilian rescuer during the blitz but never gives up on his dream to become an RAF pilot.  Except for the twist near the end, which did not seem all that original to me, this novel didn’t really turn me on that much.  The twist does justify the book-within-a-book structure, though, and creates an unfortunate dilemma for Eli, while shedding more light on Poxl than even his own memoir does.  As for the memoir itself, Poxl’s incessant hand-wringing over his abandonment of Francoise becomes tiresome after a while, although I thought his abrupt departure from Czechoslovakia was much more lamentable.  Other characters seem to disappear almost as fast as they are introduced, and the turbulent times are certainly responsible for some of this.  Still, I never established any sort of bond with any of the characters, even though they weren’t despicable or villainous.  I would have liked to have felt more invested in either Eli’s or Poxl’s story.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON by Elizabeth Strout

This novel seems so authentic that it feels like an autobiography.  And, yes, the narrator, Lucy Barton, is a writer.  She is enduring an extended hospital stay resulting from an appendectomy infection.  One morning she wakes up in her hospital bed to find her estranged mother sitting in the room.  Lucy’s husband, who barely visits at all, has paid for Lucy’s mother’s journey.  Little by little, the author reveals disturbing snippets in Lucy’s poverty-stricken and abusive childhood.  Although Lucy as a grownup has had very little contact with her mother, she is delighted to see her and hear her take on their family’s place in the community, as well as curious nuggets of information about neighbors.  What’s interesting here is that there is a massive disconnect between the reality of Lucy’s childhood and her mother’s distorted view.  Lucy’s mother offers no regret, embarrassment, or apology for Lucy’s extremely painful childhood.  Her mother is disconnected emotionally as well, unable to express the love for her daughter that she obviously feels.  The author explores the mother-daughter dynamic here in a way that transcends logic.  Lucy has kept her distance from her mother for years but now delights in sharing memories and stories that don’t relate to either of their current lives.  Elements of this book seem very much like The Glass Castle but with more emphasis on Lucy’s present life in New York, including her admiration for her very caring doctor and for an established author who gives her some important advice about not whitewashing the ugly stuff.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

THE VEGETARIAN by Han Kang

This unusual novel is told from the perspective of three characters, none of whom is the title character.  The book is divided into three parts, so that each narrator has his/her own section.  The vegetarian in question is Yeong-hye, a South Korean woman who has a frightening dream that persuades her to stop eating meat immediately.  Her husband narrates the first section and confesses that he chose Yeong-hye as his wife especially for her lack of distinction.  Even after throwing out all of the meat in the freezer and adopting a vegetarian diet, she continues to have nightmares, and her weight loss drives her father to try to force feed her at a family dinner.  After a brief stay in a mental hospital, she attracts the attention of her sister’s husband, an artist who narrates the second section.  He takes advantage of Yeong-hye’s fragile emotional state for his own warped artistic purposes.  Yeong-hye’s sister narrates the final and most poignant section, in which she laments the fact that Yeong-hye has lost the right to make decisions about her own body.  Finally, in this section, we get a few cryptic clues as to why Yeong-hye has made this transformation, but I felt that by diminishing in size she was increasing in distinctiveness.  Not that I think she was trying to get attention, but especially in the middle section of the book, she sheds her mediocrity and becomes her brother-in-law’s erotic obsession.  She is the catalyst not only for the demise of her own marriage but also her sister’s, so that she becomes a force for radical change in the lives of other people.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

VILLA AMERICA by Liza Klaussmann

Sara and Gerald Murphy are Americans who really did exist.  They expatriated to the French Riviera in the 1920s, raised their three children there, and hobnobbed with a host of well-known artists and writers, such as Picasso, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dos Passos, and Archibald MacLeish.  Gerald himself had a brief career as an artist, but basically the Murphys were known for their house parties.  They seemed to have a stable relationship, unlike Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald or Ernest and Hadley Hemingway.  However, Gerald was a closet homosexual, although in this book some of his friends utter innuendos that suggest his secret was not so secret.  Also, the author has invented a love interest for Gerald in the book—Owen Campbell, a pilot who exists well outside the Murphys’ well-heeled circle of friends, until they start drawing him in.  For me, this book treaded in all-too-familiar territory.  I liked The Paris Wife better, and this just seemed like more of the same but with more pleasant main characters.  Often the flaws are what make book characters compelling.  Here, Gerald and Sara come off as an island of sanity in the middle of an ocean of obnoxious but talented people.  Their idyllic life can’t last forever, though, and not just because the Depression is wiping out their prodigious funds.  Still, it’s the larger than life images of Hemingway and Fitzgerald that create the most memorable scenes in the book, such as the running of the bulls in Pamplona and a wine glass tantrum.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

LOUISA: THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF MRS. ADAMS by Louisa Thomas

We have two Louisa’s here, and they are both writers.  The author, Louisa Thomas, brings to life the wife of John Quincy Adams.  Louisa Adams wrote several autobiographies, despite her early reticence in composing letters to John Quincy, for fear that she had nothing to say and lacked the eloquence with which to say it.  Her confidence and self-esteem rose as she became vital to John Quincy’s political ambitions.  She compensated for his lack of social skills by ingratiating herself with influential people around the world, thanks to her charm and beauty.  Louisa’s health was always fragile, but she soldiered on, enduring enumerable miscarriages, long and harrowing journeys, and the demise of her father’s fortune and good name.  I’m not a big fan of biographies, but I couldn’t help but admire this woman’s spunk and savvy assessment of personalities that enabled her to make crucial decisions affecting her family.  Her keen observations of the people in power and her commentary on the political and social climate make for a sometimes absorbing read.  Unfortunately, she does not come across as a particularly happy person, but I think she had some very satisfying moments.  Certainly, her contributions to her husband’s successes were immeasurable, and she deserved more credit than she received.  As a woman who married into a very powerful and esteemed family, she struggled for acceptance and respect.  Her husband became an early abolitionist, but he may have stifled her relationship with the Grimk√© sisters, who were outspoken abolitionists and women’s rights advocates.  Louisa inhabited a man’s world but cemented her own place in this country’s history.

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.