Wednesday, December 31, 2008


This is a book to be savored for the struggles of its characters but also for its history lesson. The narrator is Anna, a child who lives in Shanghai with her American parents in the late 1930s. Her father, Joseph, was born in China to American missionary parents and loves Shanghai, much to the detriment his family life, for its ambience as well as its business opportunities. When the Japanese begin to invade Shanghai, Anna and her mother, Eve, get out while they can, fleeing to Eve's mother's home in Pasadena. Thus begins the slow passage to Anna's and her mother's realization that the three of them may never be a family again. Meanwhile, Joseph, who repeatedly underestimates the effect of the volatility in China on his way of life, leads a precarious existence that includes poverty, imprisonment and torture. He is truly the main character here, even when the story centers upon Eve and Anna in California. The more his wife and daughter try to oust him from their thoughts, the more they focus on their loss of a husband and father. One could argue that the distant land in the title is the U.S., from which Joseph is estranged by miles and by culture. Shanghai itself is also a central character, as its destruction and suffering somewhat parallel Joseph's path through life. More so than many wartime novels, this book made me appreciate not just my health but also our relatively safe democratic society.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

MARLEY AND ME by John Grogan

Marley and Me is John Grogan's ode to his beloved yellow Labrador Retriever who predated all three of Grogan's children. Marley was a loving, happy, loyal dog but a constant troublemaker. He turned the garage into a shambles when a thunderstorm hit, was expelled from obedience school, swallowed an 18k gold necklace, and managed to escape a large steel cage. This is one of those alternately laugh-out-loud funny and tear-inducing books. As all of us who have pets know, though, you can't have one emotion without the other, since we usually outlive them. It's not just about the dog, either. Grogan bares all in his recounting of his wife's miscarriage, the unpleasant effort to get pregnant again, and her plunge into postpartum depression after a difficult pregnancy with their second child. Fortunately, one day she finally wakes up as her old self, and even Marley is back in her good graces. In one of his better moments, Marley stands sentry while Grogan comforts a young stabbing victim. Mostly, though, it's about Marley's many screw-ups and escapades, and it made me appreciate my cat, whose worst faults are chewing up shoelaces and noisy bathing at ungodly hours.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

FREAKONOMICS by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

If you're looking for a solution to our current economic woes, you've come to the wrong place. This book is more about challenging the "conventional wisdom," a term coined by the late great economist and author John Kenneth Galbraith. Levitt and Dubner cover a wide range of topics, including how an infiltrator brought down the KKK, why your real estate agent may not try to get top dollar for your house, why gun control doesn't work in this country, the effect of Roe vs. Wade on crime, the effect of a variety of factors on future success, cheating by teachers who monitor standardized tests, why crack dealers live with their mothers, and how financial incentives can have the opposite of the desired effect. More than once you'll find yourself going "How about that!" The authors back up their claims with studies and statistics and even offer a brief explanation of regression analysis. The section on baby-naming patterns gets a little tedious, but, other than that, this is fascinating stuff.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

THE HISTORY OF LOVE by Nicole Krauss

I'm always a little put off when a first-person narrator is the opposite sex from the author. Still, I managed to embrace Leo Gursky, a Holocaust survivor, and got a sense of his personality, thanks in part to his one- and two-word sentences, such as "And yet." Plus, the narrator's voice flips between Leo's and that of Alma Singer, a teenage girl who's into survival techniques. Alma is named for a character in the book The History of Love by Zvi Litvinoff, which her father, now deceased, gave to her mother. Now Alma's mother is translating the book from Spanish to English for a man named Jacob Marcus, whose identity remains a mystery until the end. The stories of Leo and Alma Singer start to become intertwined when we find that Leo had a girlfriend named Alma Mereminski in Poland, who preceded him in fleeing to the U.S. When he arrives here and tracks her down, he finds that she has married and borne Leo's son Isaac. At her request, Leo stays out of Isaac's life but follows his career as a successful writer. Krauss, however, does not dwell on the heartbreak of this situation but instead fast-forwards to Leo as an old retired locksmith. There's also Bird Singer, Alma's younger brother, who thinks he's possibly the Messiah and earns his nickname by trying to fly. The story is convoluted but in a good way. At the end, I wanted to wrap this book in a big, warm hug. Also, the fact that there's a minor character who is apparently imagined made me want to read it all over again.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

ONE GOOD TURN by Kate Atkinson

This sequel to Case Histories is even better than its predecessor, and you definitely don't need to have read Case Histories to enjoy One Good Turn. The only characters from the first book that appear here are PI Jackson Brodie and Julia, who is now Jackson's long-distance girlfriend. I tried to describe the plot to my husband, and he said that it sounded like a Guy Ritchie movie with a variety of seemingly unrelated events and characters. It starts with a serious case of road rage, followed by a missing body, a hidden gun, and a mistaken-identity murder. Kate Atkinson keeps you on your toes with a diverse cast, including the sleazy Graham Hatter, who's already brain-dead from a heart attack suffered while tied up by a paid dominatrix. There's also Graham's unconcerned wife Gloria, the unfunny comedian Richard Mott, the crime novelist Martin Canning with a dark secret, and police detective Louise Monroe, who may become Jackson's next love interest. Like the Russian nesting dolls that keep reappearing in the plot, everything finally fits together at the end. Try to keep up.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


The title of Ha Jin's Waiting succinctly expresses the book's theme. Lin Kong, a doctor in a city hospital in China, is ashamed of his unattractive wife Shuyu and her tiny deformed feet that were bound as a child. She and their daughter Hua live in the country, where Lin visits them every summer. Meanwhile, Lin has struck up a platonic but loving relationship with the head nurse Manna at the hospital. Each year when Lin returns home, Shuyu agrees to a divorce but then reneges in court. Finally, after 18 years, the law allows Lin to divorce her without her permission. Of course, by this time, the spark has gone out of his relationship with Manna. The irony of the title is that all three main characters are waiting for something, but once that something materializes, it's anti-climactic. The reader does a lot of waiting, too, for something tragic to happen, but when it does, it's a bit of a surprise. Still, like the characters, the reader realizes at the end that the waiting was the best part.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

INTO THE WILD by Jon Krakauer

Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild is the haunting, heartbreaking, true story of Chris McCandless, who died alone in the Alaskan wilderness at the age of 24, trying to survive by hunting and gathering all of his food. Krakauer's article on McCandless for Outside magazine apparently brought a number of Chris's friends and acquaintances out of the woodwork, giving Krakauer enough material to fill in some of the blanks in Chris's two-year odyssey, as well as correct a few errors. Krakauer argues convincingly that McCandless was not as unprepared and foolhardy as many people believed for a stint in the wild. McCandless did, however, make some tragic mistakes that cost him his life. Krakauer also includes in the book the story of his own solo trek in Alaska that could have very easily resulted in the same fate. McCandless was a fascinating but frustrating and headstrong young man and remains an enigma. He was smart, musical, athletic, and well-liked by almost everyone who came in contact with him, but he struck out on his own for two years without a word to his family. Time and again, people he met on the road helped him out despite their initial reluctance. His heroes were Leo Tolstoy and Jack London, but as Krakauer points out, he was trying to live Jack London's fiction, which was a far cry from Jack London's life. My favorite anecdote in the book is the story of Chris's abandoned Datsun, which, ironically, was rescued and resurrected. Krakauer's storytelling is so vivid that it kept me awake at night, long after I finished the book.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


Irene Dische gets extra credit for the staccato writing style of The Empress of Weehawken. The brisk—almost breathless—sentences add to the inherent humor. The book is fiction, but it's narrated by the author's Catholic grandmother, affectionately known as Mops, a nurse who marries a Jewish doctor, Carl Rother, in 1930's Germany. Carl converts to Catholicism, but it doesn't stop the SS from barring Aryan citizens from seeking Carl's medical attention. His wife's relatives help Carl emigrate to the U.S., where his poor command of the English language stymies his attempts to pass the pathology board exam that will enable him to practice medicine. Also in danger is Carl's half-Jewish daughter Renate, a headstrong teenager who refuses to conceal her lineage in Nazi Germany. After Carl gets his M.D. but loses his job prospect, his wife and daughter join him in New York. There Renate marries Dische, known primarily by his last name and for "hogging the eccentricity limelight." I know this doesn't sound like it should be funny, but the narration makes it so. Oddly enough, the humor diminishes when Irene herself becomes a more central character.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

PALE FIRE by Vladimir Nabokov

If Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire were not so high-brow, it might be fun. This book is obviously not your everyday novel. It's a poem with a pompous, inapplicable, absurd foreword and commentary surrounding it. The fictitious poet is the late John Shade, and the notes are authored by his pesky neighbor, Professor Charles Kinbote, from the northern kingdom of Zembla. The commentary is mostly tales of Zembla, so that it's almost as if Nabokov had two ideas, one for the poem and one for the Zembla folklore, and decided to juxtapose them in this farcical fashion. The result is something like the Lennon and McCartney song "A Day in the Life," with two completely different works spliced into one. It's difficult to keep the Zembla characters straight, despite the index at the end, especially since the stories are interspersed with off-kilter observations on the poem. Plus, it would be helpful to have two copies so that you could read the poem side-by-side with the commentary, as recommended in the foreword, although actual commentary on the poem is really pretty negligible. The funniest story line, though, is that of Kinbote's relationship with Shade and his wife Sylvia. Kinbote's attempts to spy on Shade, even vacationing where he thinks Shade is going, and his disappointment at not being invited to Shade's birthday party are embarrassingly pathetic. Despite Kinbote's lack of success in persuading Shade to incorporate some Zembla stories into the poem, he draws parallels between lines of the poem and Zembla anyway. It really would be hilarious, particularly the way in which everything comes together in the end, if it weren't so challenging to read.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

LOVING FRANK by Nancy Horan

I found the personality of Mamah Borthwick to be somewhat elusive in Nancy Horan's portrait of her, Loving Frank, probably due to the paucity of historical information. I wanted to know Mamah and like her but couldn't quite grasp what Frank Lloyd Wright found so compelling about her. Was she warm, animated, brilliant? What were her faults? Was she tortured by guilt? Certainly in this novel she was, as exemplified by her reaction to the Faustian opera. Wright, on the other hand, was more vivid, with his arrogant charm and nonchalance with regard to bill paying. Also, the line between fact and fiction was blurred here, and I was curious as to whether Mattie's fate and even Mamah's visit to Boulder were based on fact. We know that Mamah followed her heart to the detriment of her family and had to wear a virtual scarlet letter for her behavior, skewered by the press and acquaintances alike. For me, though, this love story did not jump off the page. I expected an unfortunate outcome, but the super-tragic ending shocked and saddened me, just the same.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

CHANG AND ENG by Darin Strauss

Darin Strauss tells a fictionalized story of the conjoined twins for whom the term "Siamese twins" was coined. Narrated by Eng, who alternately loves and hates his ever-present brother, Chang and Eng alternates between two timelines—one that follows their history from birth in Siam and one that recounts the years after they marry sisters in North Carolina. The post-marriage story is tedious and not as kinky as I had hoped. The pre-marriage story is far more captivating, as the brothers manage the tasks of everyday life, as well as the handstands and gymnastics that they learn to perform for audiences, including the king. Joined by a 5-inch ligament and sharing a stomach that makes separation impossible, at least in the late 1800's, Chang and Eng do not share similar personalities. Eng is very no-nonsense and reads Shakespeare, but Chang is the crowd favorite with his jokes and antics, until he deteriorates into alcoholism. Though Eng is stronger physically and intellectually, Chang manages to get the upper hand in several crucial decisions, including which sister he marries and whether to return to the poverty of Siam. It's impossible to imagine having to negotiate with another person one's every move and worse yet to know that the first to die will take the other with him.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

THE SPACE BETWEEN US by Thrity Umrigar

In Thrity Umrigar's The Space Between Us, the "space" applies to every relationship in the book, and it can be socio-economic, generational, or a gender-defined gap. Bhima is a domestic servant to Sera in Bombay. They have been friends for years, but the delineation between employer and employee is very well marked, as they are both handcuffed by the expectations of their culture. Still, Sera's family has provided ample assistance to Bhima's—ensuring that the doctor administers antibiotics to Bhima's husband when he's dying of an infection, providing for Bhima's granddaughter Maya's education, and then taking Maya to a good doctor for an abortion. One of my chief complaints about this book is that, except for Sera's father-in-law, the men are unilaterally evil—Bhima's husband, Gopal, who became an alcoholic and left town with her young son after an industrial accident, Sera's deceased husband, Feroz, who was a wife-beating tyrant, and Sera's son-in-law, Viraf, whose treachery is disclosed at the end. Mainly, though, the book seems to promote the theme that gratitude is a form of bondage. I certainly have no argument with that. Many of us view our bosses as friends at some level and our employers as benevolent dictators, but yet we'd relish the opportunity to "take this job and shove it."

Thursday, October 9, 2008


Hisham Matar's In the Country of Men is a powerful story told in a quiet, unassuming way by Suleiman, a nine-year-old boy in Libya under Qaddafi's regime. His father is a political activist, and his mother is an alcoholic who drinks to calm her fears during her husband's many absences. Suleiman's parents attempt to shelter their son from the oppression and violence that surrounds them, so that he picks up only snippets of information. Consequently, he is confused about whom to trust and is somewhat of an unsuspected liability to his father's clandestine activities. The mother resents having been forced by the men in her family to marry her husband, because she was deemed too reckless at fourteen. Her bitterness leads to an almost Oedipal relationship with her son, who dreams of going back in time and rescuing her from her fate. However, as in many arranged marriages, she adapts, and her marriage becomes her lifeline. In some ways, this book reminded me of The Kite Runner, as Suleiman's friendship with Kareem, whose father is also a rebel, deteriorates due to Suleiman's cruel betrayal of Kareem's confidences. One complaint that I had about this book was that it was difficult to distinguish the characters. Suleiman's father was known as Bu Suleiman (father of Suleiman?) and his mother as Um Suleiman (mother of Suleiman?), according to Libyan tradition, I guess. This was never explained, and I had to pick it up from context.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

UNLESS by Carol Shields

My favorite chapters in Unless by Carol Shields are the unsent letters that Reta, the narrator, composes to authors who acknowledge the influence of other male writers, ignoring female writers. The best is the one she writes to someone whose obituary she has just read. Feminism is certainly a dominant theme in this book, but so are family and grief. The grief, however, is not over a loved one's death. Reta and Tom's oldest daughter, Norah, has essentially dropped out, silently begging for money on a Toronto street corner, with a handwritten sign around her neck, bearing the single word "Goodness." This unfortunate situation consumes the lives of Reta, Tom, and their two younger daughters. I guess you could say that at least death has closure, whereas Norah's circumstances cause ongoing concern as winter approaches. The overriding mystery is what caused Norah to take the drastic step of dropping out of college to panhandle, but there's actually a lot in this book to savor. I loved that Reta's mother-in-law, Lois, has a file of 100 dessert recipes and brings dessert to dinner every night, as soon as Reta signals by closing the red kitchen curtains. Also, it's almost a book within a book, as Reta contemplates various endings for the novel she is writing, a sequel about a fashion writer who is engaged to a trombonist. Her new overbearing editor is a hoot, interrupting all her sentences and suggesting that she use a pseudonym, such as R. R. Summers. (Has J.K. Rowling started a trend?) You can imagine how our feminist protagonist feels about such a gender-neutral name. And, of course, everyone has a theory as to why Norah has checked out. The author drops a hint early on but not large enough for me to put two and two together.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

APPALOOSA by Robert B. Parker

I don't often read westerns, but I wanted to read Robert B. Parker's Appaloosa before seeing the movie. Parker may not be Larry McMurtry, but he knows how to spin a good yarn about the wild west. I especially loved the dialog; it sounded like Sam Elliott doing a Coors commercial. Everett Hitch, the charismatic narrator, and the vocabulary-challenged Virgil Cole are gunslinging lawmen-for-hire. They come to Appaloosa to arrest Russell Bragg, who has recently murdered the town's marshal and one of his deputies. Cole is the man in charge, and Hitch hitches his wagon to Cole's, so to speak. No self-respecting western would be complete without a woman to stir things up, and Allie French does just that, earning her keep at the local hotel with less-than-stellar piano playing. There's a scene where the three main characters ride out to look at a herd of horses, led by an appaloosa stallion, who fights off a chestnut stallion to protect his brood. This scene plays out among the humans in the end, though not exactly in the way you might expect. I can't wait to see the movie, and I'll be putting the sequel, Resolution, on my reading list.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


As Aryn Kyle's The God of Animals opens, Alice Winston is twelve years old, her shop class partner Polly has died, her teenage sister has run off and married a rodeo rider, and her mother has rarely gotten out of bed since Alice was an infant. This is a hard-luck coming-of-age story set on a struggling horse farm in the desert west. Like the horses it glorifies, the book starts off at a walk, then develops into a trot, then a canter, and then a full gallop. In fact, it doesn't really hit its stride until about two-thirds of the way through. Also, I think that even the most tragic story requires a little bit of humor, and my only other complaint about this book is that it has no humor whatsoever. On the plus side, the characters are very real, although no one is particularly loveable. Alice herself is so embarrassed by her family that she tells innumerable bold-faced lies, inventing lofty professions for her father and brother-in-law, hoping to raise her own status with school friends and a teacher that she phones every night. Eventually, Alice comes to learn that almost everyone is flawed, even those who seem to have a perfect life and those whom she admires most. One of my favorite bits of irony is that, although not the horsewoman her sister was, Alice rides Darling for a blue ribbon in the reining class, after chastising her father for foolishly buying the mare in the first place.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


I needed a small paperback to take on a weekend hiking trip, and The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers fit the bill. Frankie is a 12-year-old in the 1940's who is extremely naïve by today's standards, thinking that she can join her brother and his bride on their honeymoon after the wedding. This fantasy is the focal point of the story, as it represents an opportunity for Frankie to escape her friendless, motherless life. Frankie's maid Berenice tries to alter Frankie's expectations for the outcome of the wedding in as compassionate a manner as possible, without being condescending, but to no avail. Frankie innocently imagines a future of exotic travels with the newlyweds and bestows on herself a level of pseudo-sophistication, renaming herself F. Jasmine in Part 2 of the book. (She is Frances in Part 3.) In her attempt to appear more worldly, Frankie attracts the attention of a drunken soldier and foolishly places herself in a dangerous position. I found this novel much more enjoyable than The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. This book is almost humorous, in an embarrassing coming-of-age sort of way. My favorite paragraph is in the first few pages where the author describes a biscuit man (like a gingerbread man from biscuit dough) that has been taken from the oven. The biscuit man's features have all run together as it baked and expanded. Perhaps this is a metaphor for gaining maturity and leaving childhood quirks behind. Or perhaps it's just a dandy piece of writing.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

FIELDWORK by Mischa Berlinski

Although Mischa Berlinski's Fieldwork loses steam near the end, it is still a fascinating read. Martiya van der Leun is an American cultural anthropologist in Thailand studying the Dyalo people. Parallel to her story is the saga of the Walker family of missionaries and their quest to convert the Dyalo to Christianity. Oddly enough, the story of the Walkers is the more captivating, spanning multiple generations of enthusiastic evangelists. By Martiya's own admission, daily living in a pre-literate society is tedious and uninspiring—not the fulfilling experience that she expected "fieldwork" to be. From the beginning, the novel presents us with a mystery. Martiya, convicted of the murder of David Walker, has committed suicide in prison. The narrator, a free-lance writer in Thailand, whose name is the author's, researches the events that led to the murder by interviewing the Walker family, as well as Martiya's associates and friends in both the U.S. and Thailand. Especially interesting is the victim himself, who finds his calling during his stint as a Dead Head.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

THEN WE CAME TO THE END by Joshua Ferris

I don't think you have to have worked in a cube farm to enjoy Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End, but it probably helps. On the other hand, if you've ever been the victim of a layoff, it may hit a little too close to home. Narrated in first person plural, an omniscient "we," this tragicomedy is not so much about downsizing as it about the quirks of the various members of a corporate office. The book is chock-full of stereotypes, including the diminutive female boss, Lynn, with a fabulous shoe collection, and her lieutenant, Joe, who fits in with neither management nor staff. The author succeeds in making the point that sometimes managers tend to view their staff as a collective entity rather than as individuals. By the same token, some employees fail to see their supervisors as having human characteristics. In fact, the heart of the book is the story of Lynn's struggle with her fear of breast cancer surgery. Lynn epitomizes how people allow their jobs to define who they are and how their jobs affect their standing within their various relationships—with their friends, their families, and their coworkers. Work can be stressful, but the routine of our jobs can be comforting also. One copywriter shows up for a meeting 2 hours after he's been let go, just because it's been on his calendar for months. There are lots of quotable quotes in this book, but one of my favorites is on page 53: "We liked wasting time, but almost nothing was more annoying than having our wasted time wasted on something not worth wasting it on." Dilbert, take note.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


Junot Díaz's Pulitzer winner The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was a disappointment. This is a like-mother like-son story of foolish, obsessive, unrequited love. In both cases, the obsession is dangerous because the object of his/her affection has connections to Trujillo, the brutal dictator of the Dominican Republic for thirty years. Single mother Beli, her daughter Lola, and son Oscar live in Paterson, New Jersey, but the real action takes place in the DR where their roots are. I found the voluminous footnotes and the slang, often in Spanish, particularly exasperating. Also, the not-always-identifiable narrator changes frequently and is sometimes first person, sometimes third, with lots of backtracking in time. This choppiness robbed the story of continuity, not to mention making it a bit challenging to follow. My favorite narrator, though, was Yunior, also a Dominican in New Jersey, who is Lola's occasional lover and Oscar's occasional college roommate. Yunior grows to genuinely care for Oscar, the bumbling obese nerd who pines for women he can't have. Oscar is too maladjusted and clueless with his Tolkien-inspired and Jedi-infused techno-speak to be a likeable character, but Yunior manages to tell the lovesick Oscar's story in a compassionate way.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


On the next to last page of Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Changez, the Pakistani Princeton-educated narrator, says, "I have felt rather like a Kurtz waiting for his Marlowe." This allusion to Heart of Darkness is very illuminating, as Hamid's book bears several similarities to Conrad's novel. First, the narrator is telling his story to an unidentified stranger, although in this case the narrator is the Kurtz-like character. More telling, though, is the fact that Changez's story is that of a star team player run amok. The revelation at the end will tell you who is the Marlowe character and will make you want to reread the novel. The title is a little puzzling, since Changez is encouraged in his New York job to focus on fundamentals. He is, however, never reluctant in that regard. He is either totally gung-ho or totally apathetic. I think he is "reluctant" to abandon his American lifestyle to re-engage with his "fundamental" Pakistani roots, but 9/11 and the U.S. response to that tragedy have a sudden and jarring impact on his perspective. I'm not sure, either, what purpose his girlfriend Erica serves, as she loses her own way in her grief for a lost love. Perhaps she is a metaphor for the U.S. in its post-9/11 grief, but my biggest complaint about the book is that no clear explanation is given for Changez's obsession with her. I suppose that he just longs for something he can never have, just as he can never fully blend in with lighter-skinned Americans. All symbolism aside, the rhythm of the prose somehow evokes the narrator's heritage and builds suspense, right up until the last sentence. There is also some clever wordplay that made me smile, such as "Maximum return was the maxim to which we returned, time and again."

Thursday, August 7, 2008


The books in the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich are my favorite beach reads. They're also great for a break after reading something long, challenging, or depressing. Evanovich never fails to please with mystery, sex, and laugh-out-loud humor. Stephanie is a sometimes inept, sometimes lucky, sometimes wily bond enforcement agent in Trenton for her uncle Vinnie. She is divorced from Dickie, who cheated on her with Joyce, also a bounty hunter for Vinnie. Stephanie's main sidekick is another of Vinnie's employees, Lula, a large black ex-prostitute. Are you getting the picture here? The characters are wacky and hilarious, especially Stephanie's family, including her randy granny, whose favorite social activity is seeing who's laid out at Stiva's funeral home. Stephanie's love life always figures largely into the plot, as she's torn between two men. Joe Morelli, whom she's known since childhood, is a hunky cop who wants to marry her However, he doesn't relish the idea that the future mother of his children is being shot at on a regular basis. Ranger is another skip tracer for Vinnie who's sexy to the point of being scary. These books are as addictive as chocolate.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

LEEWAY COTTAGE by Beth Gutcheon

When I first started reading Leeway Cottage by Beth Gutcheon, I thought it was going to be a family saga about debutantes with a summer house in Maine. Fortunately, that was not the case. The book actually revolves around WWII, especially the Danes' feat of protecting the lives of almost all of their 7000 Jews. Sydney, an aspiring teenage singer in the U.S., leaves her jealous mother, takes her trust fund, and moves to New York. There she meets Laurus, a half-Jewish Dane who becomes her accompanist. Shortly after they're married, he goes to Europe to assist in the war effort. The harrowing experiences of Jews in Denmark, including Laurus's parents, attempting to escape to Sweden, is the most gripping section of the book. Laurus's sister Nina becomes involved in the effort to provide safe havens for Jews and is eventually caught and sent to a series of prisons and concentration camps. Her experiences leave her forever scarred. The situation in Europe is sharply contrasted with Sydney's life, where she is remodeling Leeway Cottage, the summer home she has purchased in Maine, and giving birth to her first child. This book is largely about Laurus's and Sydney's marriage and their relationships with their children. Sydney begins to harbor animosity toward her daughters, just as her mother did toward her, and dotes on her son Jimmy, who can't stay out of trouble. The marriage itself is a big question mark. Laurus believes that in heaven you'll see a movie of your life in which everything is explained, and the author reveals the essence of the marriage in the finale.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd is narrated by a fourteen-year-old girl, and I found it to be much more juvenile than a Harry Potter book. The story takes place in South Carolina just as the Civil Rights Act has been signed. The plot is sappy and predictable and has been better told before; it felt like a knock-off of Huckleberry Finn. A white teenage girl (Lily) whose mother is dead leaves her abusive father, and hitchhikes out of town with a large black woman (Rosaleen) that Lily has busted out of jail. She finds solace with a group of black sisters who make their livings as beekeepers and gets a taste of what it's like to be the one who's a different color. I'm not sure which character Queen Latifah plays, but I can definitely envision Dakota Fanning in the lead role of the movie that's coming out this fall. The unique thing about this book, though, is that each chapter begins with a quoted fact from one of various books about bees, and I found these interesting and educational. Kidd doesn't bother enlightening us too much about the details of beekeeping, but she sheds a lot of light on the relationships and duties of the various members of the hive. For example, if something happens to the queen, the hive eventually becomes dysfunctional if she is not replaced very soon. This metaphor for a motherless child isn't even thinly veiled, but it works, I guess.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

WHILE I WAS GONE by Sue Miller

Sue Miller's While I Was Gone is a sort of literary thriller and exemplifies how someone's youthful mistakes can hamper his or her credibility later in life. Jo is a veterinarian with a checkered past, married to a minister, Daniel. In her twenties, Jo abandoned her first husband and reinvented herself, spending a year under an assumed name in a mini-commune or group home. The utopia of the home was blasted apart when one of the female residents, Dana, was murdered. When Jo re-encounters Eli, a biochemist from the group home, the reader anticipates that he will shed some light on who killed Dana. Jo, on the other hand, has begun to fantasize about an affair with Eli. Besides being an engrossing page-turner, this book raises several intriguing questions, and the author spells them out without the annoying subtlety of obscure symbols. Can someone be absolved of murder by saving other lives? Why do we feel so burdened by our secrets that we have to share them, without considering their impact on our listener? Are thoughts of adultery just as unforgivable in a marriage as actually having sex with another partner? Celebrity divorce lawyers are addressing this last question as we speak.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

CLAPTON by Eric Clapton

Eric Clapton's story is not a pretty one, but he's obviously a survivor. He spent three years as a "wasteful" junkie, did two stints of rehab for alcoholism, and mourned the accidental death of his young son. Now he's happily married with three daughters but still affirms that the most important thing in his life is maintaining his sobriety. He credits music with seeing him through all the dark times, but many people that he knew were not so lucky. He peppers the book with tales of other musicians, such as Jimi Hendrix, that I wouldn't have guessed that he knew. He's careful not to slam his fellow musicians, but he does complain about Mick Jagger stealing his girlfriends. Delaney Bramlett convinced Eric that he must sing, and Eric finally realized that to do the kind of music that he wanted to do, he'd have to be the front man. He pays homage to all the great blues musicians and remains a blues purist, despite his having had to conform to the musical trends of the day in order to fulfill contracts, fill concert halls, and sell records. This memoir proves that he can write more than song lyrics, although he does have a tendency to repeat phrases such as "the time of my life." The book lays a myth or two to rest, especially the one that claims he stole his best friend's wife. First of all, George Harrison was not his best friend, and secondly, Pattie Boyd left George after her marriage had begun to disintegrate. Needless to say, before that finally happened, Eric carried a torch for her for years and repeatedly begged her to leave George, making good on his threat to become a full-fledged heroin addict if she didn't. Pattie's memoir Wonderful Tonight is a good companion piece.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

TARA ROAD by Maeve Binchy

Maeve Binchy's Tara Road is the sort of book that you read while sipping tea by a cozy fire. It's literary comfort food with no big surprises. Ria Lynch, her handsome husband Danny, and their two children are residents of a gentrified Dublin neighborhood. Ria is the mother hen of a diverse cast of characters, mostly women, including Gertie, the wife of an abusive drunk, and the successful, beautiful, unmarried Rosemary. Everyone's problems are aired in Ria's bustling kitchen, but secrets figure largely into the relationships between the characters, especially secrets that could cause pain if they were revealed. Ria's world is blown apart when Danny leaves her for his young pregnant girlfriend, and Ria impulsively jumps at an opportunity to swap houses for two months with Marilyn, an American woman living in New England. Marilyn is the exact opposite of Ria and has become even more aloof following a tragedy that she can't bring herself to speak of. Each woman overcomes her grief in the other's home. It's a sweet, enjoyable read, despite its predictability. The unsavory characters are duly punished, and the good ones prevail.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

SKINNY DIP by Carl Hiaasen

Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen isn't a whodunit or even a mystery, because we know in the first few pages that Chaz Perrone has thrown his wife Joey overboard from a cruise ship. Joey, however, a former collegiate swimmer, survives the plunge by hanging on to a bale of marijuana. Then Mick Stranahan, a former cop, rescues her and brings her back to his island paradise, and they fall in love. I'm not kidding. So you'll have to suspend reality here, but who cares? The story is an enjoyable romp, and Mick and Joey surreptitiously torment scumbag Chaz as a means of revenge while hiding the fact that Joey is still alive. The big questions are what was Chaz's motive, since Joey's fortune is unobtainable (did I mention that she's rich and beautiful?) and why did Joey marry him in the first place. The book is full of colorful characters, especially Tool, a big hairy oaf that changes allegiances during the course of the ensuing mayhem. Along with the fun, the author drills home his message of the need to protect the Everglades from corrupt politicians and big business, who will go to any lengths to hide their sins of pollution.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


Having found the ending to Atonement totally exasperating, I was pleasantly surprised to have the opposite response to Ian McEwan's Amsterdam. Molly Lane has just died after a slow, sad deterioration. Two of her former lovers, Vernon, a newspaper editor, and Clive, a composer, make a pact to ensure that the other doesn't suffer such an ignominious decline. We then get a closer look into the personalities of these two men. At first it seems that Clive is a better friend—more thoughtful and unselfish—even as he contemplates that he may be England's first musical genius. He has been commissioned to write a symphony for the new millennium and is under the gun to finish it. Vernon, on the other hand, is fighting to increase circulation of his newspaper in order to save his job. He seems more materialistic, willing to tarnish a despised politician's reputation in order to sell newspapers. However, the tables turn when Clive witnesses a man assaulting a woman but can't be bothered while he's on the brink of coming up with the perfect riff that will make his symphony a masterpiece. The two men become equally despicable, each concluding that the other has lost his marbles. The book raises the issue of human euthanasia and how to determine if it's warranted. The metaphors are just stunning, including one sentence where McEwan likens clothes hanging in a closet to commuters sitting side-by-side on the train. The writing, coupled with the intriguing, nuanced characters, just blew me away.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

OF LOVE AND SHADOWS by Isabel Allende

In Isabel Allende's Of Love and Shadows, the "shadows" are the dark horrors of a military dictatorship in South America. This is another book that seems to have lost something in the translation. The language feels foreign, along with the culture and setting of the book. The planned marriage, the strong connection to one's roots, despite the ghastly events that take place there, and the almost whimsical love story were difficult for me to relate to. The descriptions of the regime's brutality seemed detached and did not have much emotional impact. Perhaps the objectivity was intentional in order to convey the seeming complacence of people living in oppression, despite the terror.

Thursday, June 5, 2008


Ordinary Heroes by Scott Turow is a departure from his usual courtroom drama, but Turow's calling card is really moral dilemmas. This WWII story definitely has a dilemma, though not necessarily moral. The book is told in first person by both David, a lawyer-soldier, and his son Stewart, an unemployed journalist. Sometimes I had to read a few sentences before it was apparent who was narrating. Stewart finds out after his dad's death that David was court-martialed, and Stewart embarks on a mission of discovery of who his dad really was. During the war, David was ordered to capture Major Robert Martin, a rogue soldier suspected of being a Russian spy. However, he became friends with Martin and even assisted in one of his missions, getting his first taste of combat. David then fell in love with Gita, a member of Martin's band of bandits. Martin evaded capture time and again, partly with Gita's help, as she double-crossed David to save Martin, and partly due to David's inner conflict about his assignment. The Burden of Proof is still my favorite Scott Turow novel.

Thursday, May 29, 2008


If you think Harry Potter books are just for kids, think again. Some of the wordplay is probably lost on young readers. I especially like "Diagon Alley" (diagonally, get it?), and "Knockturn Alley", where the dark arts are sold, is an even better example. The "Pensieve" is a great invented word for a device that allows viewing someone's memories. Plus, these spellbinding adventure stories have become a huge part of the pop culture, and you don't want to be left out. Recently I spotted a car whose back end was spattered with various Harry Potter bumper stickers, not one of which mentioned him explicitly by name. Everyone needs to know what Gryffindor, Quidditch, and Parseltongue are, right? And the movies have become so ubiquitous that I sometimes wonder if J. K. Rowling is influenced by their depiction of her characters. Is Harry looking more and more like Daniel Radcliffe in her mind? The movie based on the sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, is coming out in November. Start with this book if you've already seen the movies and don't want to read the first five. This is the penultimate in J. K. Rowling's series, and it continues with some of the same themes as the previous volumes as it builds to the conclusion in the seventh book. As she says, seven is a magical number, and it also figures into the plot of Half-Blood Prince, named for the unknown former owner of Harry's Potions textbook. The Prince's handwritten margin notes help Harry out on more than one occasion and not just in his school work. Half-Blood Prince answers a few nagging questions, such as why Voldemort thinks he's immortal and why the Defense Against the Dark Arts teaching position is a revolving door. It also seems to settle the matter of Snape's allegiance, but I'm reserving judgment until I've completed the series.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

A MAP OF THE WORLD by Jane Hamilton

Jane Hamilton's A Map of the World is about Alice, a school nurse whose life is derailed by a few minutes of inattention. Lizzy, a friend's child, drowns while in Alice's care. That tragic incident somehow catapults her into being falsely accused of child molestation, so that she is incarcerated for months. In the meantime, her dairy farmer husband tries to orchestrate her defense and find a way to raise the money for her exorbitant bail. This book is a reminder that we've all made careless mistakes, but most of us were lucky enough to avoid dire results. Oddly enough, Alice's jail time is in some ways her redemption, as her circumstances draw her out of a major funk brought on by guilt and shame. It also provides a means for her to atone for Lizzy's death. One of my favorite parts of the book is the middle section, told from Alice's husband's point of view, rather than hers. He is a much more sympathetic character than Alice, who is flighty and impetuous. The book really hits its stride, though, when the long-awaited trial finally takes place. The accuser, a 6-year-old who testifies from his mother's lap, and the accused get their day in court, and this section alone makes me want to see the movie.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

TALK TALK by T. C. Boyle

In Talk Talk, T. C. Boyle juxtaposes the crime du jour, identity theft, with the common literary theme of characters in identity crises. Dana Halter is a deaf woman who is erroneously incarcerated for several days because of the crimes committed by Peck Wilson, a man living a lavish lifestyle under her name. Dana and her boyfriend embark on a cross-country pursuit of Peck, and many adventures ensue. There are tons of unlikely coincidences along the way, but you can't help but enjoy the ride. As is the case with other T. C. Boyle novels, this one has parallel stories that converge. The other story, of course, is about Peck, and he's especially in an identity crisis, having changed names more times than he can remember. Also at stake is Dana and Bridger's relationship, which is being tested by their impetuous decision to risk everything they've achieved in life for revenge. The writing is very indicative of the pace of the novel, especially the first sentence, and I love Boyle's visual effects, such as that of railroad tracks stapling the ground. I think I'm becoming a T. C. Boyle fan. Drop City was a hoot and had a more satisfying conclusion.

Thursday, May 8, 2008


I felt almost voyeuristic while reading Katrina Kittle's The Kindness of Strangers about child molestation. The book focuses on a neighboring family that has to come to terms with what has been happening right under their noses. Sarah is a widow whose best friend Courtney has apparently videotaped her husband's "parties" for the past four years, in which he has sexually abused their young son Jordan. The message is clear: the problem of child molestation is very widespread, and it could be happening in a family that you think you know. Kittle does a great job of pairing gruesome and heartbreaking subject matter with suspense and effectively conveys Sarah's disbelief. Guilt-ridden for their oblivion, Sarah and her two sons reevaluate the clues that they ignored. As a policeman tells them, though, the clues are recognizable as such only in hindsight. Each chapter describes the perspective of one character, and the use of spelling words to put big words into the heads of eleven-year-olds seemed to me alternately clever and cutesy. How likely is it that so young a boy would identify a realization as an epiphany? Plus, Jordan is so socially and emotionally maimed, with no concept of appropriate behavior, that the outcome seemed a little too tidy. What happens to his mother is entirely predictable. My favorite observation, though, made by one of Sarah's sons near the end of the book, was that if their father, Sarah's husband, were still alive they would not have been able to help Jordan to the extent that they did. Their own grief made them stronger.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 is Ray Bradbury's 55-year-old futuristic masterpiece about a time when firemen burn books instead of extinguishing fires. (451F is the temperature at which book pages burn.) His fireman protagonist, Guy Montag, has suddenly changed allegiances and become interested in preserving books rather than destroying them. The book is supposedly about censorship, but to me it seemed to be more about apathy. The book burning started after everyone had stopped reading anyway, and the liberal arts schools had mostly disappeared. Montag's professor friend Faber lists the three things that books provide: texture, leisure to absorb the information, and our response to what they teach us. The texture is the fabric of life that books describe, and the more densely woven the fabric, the better the quality of the book. Bradbury's writing style is not very fluid, but his take on the future is noteworthy at times. Not all of his predictions have come to pass, but the bug that Faber puts in Montag's ear made me think of people wearing their cell phones today. Also, the author mentions that the television is used as a babysitter, and he was spot-on about that. However, we don't have vicious mechanical hounds, at least not that I know of, nor do we all live in fireproof houses, unfortunately.

Thursday, April 24, 2008


A rather wistful tone pervades Michael Chabon's Pulitzer winner The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Two cousins, Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay, team up to create a comic book superhero, The Escapist, against the backdrop of World War II. Joe has made a harrowing escape from Czechoslovakia, leaving behind his Jewish family, including his young brother Thomas. Joe is crushed by survivor's guilt and endeavors endlessly to gain passage for his family to the U.S. Woven into the tale is Joe's prior training as an illusionist and as a Houdini-like escape artist. The writing is superb and full of nifty metaphors. For example, Joe's girlfriend Rosa envisions his weight gain as the arrival of his body piece by piece in this country. The book also has some light moments. The scene where Tracy Bacon, who voices The Escapist on radio, meets Sammy's mom is totally hilarious, with Sammy offering snide remarks as Tracy tries to help out in the kitchen. Symbols abound--the golden key, moths, golems (life-size clay figures that can be brought to life)—as the comic book writers create characters who reflect their own aspirations and experiences. Sammy acknowledges his homosexuality by giving each character a sidekick; Rosa writes of love lost and regained; Joe is the perennial escapist. The book's biggest drawback, however, is its length. It's almost like two books in one. About two thirds of the way through, the unthinkable happens, and the real adventures begin.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

ONE MISSISSIPPI by Mark Childress

Mark Childress's One Mississippi is a wild ride, and I loved it, except for the finish. It's the tragicomic story of a teenage boy, Daniel, in culture shock when his family moves from Indiana to Mississippi in the 1970's. His newly integrated high school elects a black prom queen, and that's only the beginning. There is action galore, including a wrecked moving van, a house explosion, a car explosion—you name it. Teen angst, peer pressure, guilty consciences, toxic friendships, and identity issues abound, especially with regard to sexual orientation and race. Amidst all this emotional churning are many scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny, unless you're too young to have seen Sonny and Cher on TV. Childress seems to enjoy taking shots at the religious fanatics, painting them as hypocrites and bigots. The denouement is just like Empire Falls, and I didn't like it in that book either. Did the author plan this finale from the start, or did he paint himself into a corner and have to blast his way out? You decide.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

THE ALCHEMIST by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho is an allegory about following your bliss. I think that Eat, Pray, Love, or even Under the Tuscan Sun, does a much better job with this topic as a memoir. Still, this is a hugely popular book for reasons I cannot fathom. It's about a boy, Santiago, who gives up his life as a shepherd in Spain to act on a dream of finding a treasure at the Pyramids. I felt like I was rereading The Celestine Prophecy or something by Richard Bach, and that's not intended as a compliment. At least it was a fast read, and Coelho is very equal-opportunity where religion is concerned. I have to admit that I found interesting his suggestion that your loved ones should support you in your quest rather than feel neglected. I agree, up to a point, but relationships need nurturing, too. I also enjoyed the convenient New Age philosophy that the world "conspires" to help you achieve your goal, if you want it and strive for it with your whole heart. Does this mean that if I fail in my quest that I just didn't go after it hard enough? What if I was just ill-suited to that particular dream? I haven't read The Secret, but I wonder if it preaches the same gospel. Also, why is the ultimate pursuit called a "Personal Legend"? I can't help wondering if this is a translation problem. Doesn't a legend usually imply something that happened in the past? Anyway, read at your own risk.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

A GESTURE LIFE by Chang-rae Lee

A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee is a rich and poignant story about a Japanese man of Korean descent who emigrates to the U.S. Franklin Hata leads a quiet life as a model citizen and retired medical supply store owner in an upscale town. Most of his story is told in flashback, and there are two main threads in his past. One is his stint as a medic during World War II, and the other is his more recent past, particularly the evolution of his relationship with his adopted daughter Sunny, also Korean. Both stories are heartbreaking in their own way. During WWII the Japanese conscripted Korean women into service to provide sex to the soldiers. His friendship with one of the "comfort" women has a tragic consequence that in some ways parallels a critical event in Sunny's life. After WWII, Franklin manages to avoid true intimacy, even with Sunny. By the end, however, he has changed, partly by Sunny's reentry into his life with a young son in tow, and partly by events that have caused him to connect with his neighbors and acquaintances. The words "gesture" and "façade" are repeated throughout the novel and are surely metaphors that apply to Franklin, as his calm demeanor belies a traumatic past. The rhythm of the prose in this gem of a novel is very yoga-like, even as the story becomes progressively more intense.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

THE EYRE AFFAIR by Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair is the first book in a series whose heroine is Thursday Next, and her name embodies the British humor that pervades the book. Thursday works for a fictitious law enforcement agency in a division that protects literary works. In this case, the villain has a device that allows him to remove characters from an original manuscript, thus removing that character permanently from the book, because the original manuscript is the parent of all copies. Hmm…. It's whimsical, to say the least. Also, Thursday can insert herself into the plot of Jane Eyre, for example, and alter its ending for the better. This book wasn't exactly my thing, but the literary references were a hoot. I especially enjoyed the various arguments about who really wrote Shakespeare's plays.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children about three thirty-somethings in New York did not sound appealing to me, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and wanted more at the end. The personal entanglements and the arrival on the scene of a twenty-something with the unfortunate nickname of Bootie make for great reading. All four of the young characters are career-challenged, in various stages of identity crises, and failing to live up to their own expectations. Clothes are one of the many symbols here, and the characters cloak their true selves in a veneer that is neither admirable nor endearing. Another important character is Murray Thwaite, a famous, charismatic and well-respected personality, father of thirty-something Marina, and perhaps the "emperor" in the title. Messud weaves in a lot of suspense, especially with regard to a long-anticipated 9/11 tie-in. Each time I expected the worst to happen, an eruption of a different sort would occur. Everyone in the book is cheating in some way--Julius on his lover, Murray on his wife, Marina on her publisher. The main theme of the book, though, seems to be whether or not honesty is the best policy. Bootie is brutally honest in some ways, but he is also the least likeable character with his slovenly ways and poor treatment of his mother. He exposes that "the emperor has no clothes" but turns out to be deceitful in the extreme.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

OLD SCHOOL by Tobias Wolff

Tobias Wolff's Old School is the second book I've read in a year about a prep school student on scholarship who is a fish out of water. In this case, however, he's not a loner, and he's one of several students with realistic literary ambitions at a school whose reputation rests on its literary program. Each term is highlighted by a composition contest in the preferred genre of a visiting writer, who judges the entries and grants the winner an hour-long dialogue. You don't have to love literature to love this book, but it probably helps. Robert Frost's argument for the form in poetry, the scathingly funny depiction of Ayn Rand's high-mindedness, and Hemingway's letter about courage and truth are all fictional and yet fitting for what we expect from each author. There are so many captivating stories here, including that of Little Jeff and Big Jeff, in a love-hate relationship where one's loyalty gives the other the courage to keep from self-destructing. Ultimately, the book is about forgiveness, and Wolff develops this theme in a marvelous way, citing two parallel transgressions. One is huge, but the culprit is somehow barely aware of its severity, and the other is more of an oversight that generates more guilt than the deed warrants.

Thursday, March 6, 2008


Alexander McCall Smith's tales of Botswana, of which The Kalahari Typing School for Men is one, bear similarities to those of small-town U.S.A. but with a unique cultural slant. When Precious Ramotswe needs information for one of her detective agency's clients, she just visits a friend for a chat and a cup of tea to get the latest gossip. She is nonplussed by the sudden appearance of a rival detective agency and faces the problem head-on by going to his office to introduce herself. Despite the fact that he's all bluster and no substance, he's a former police officer, and that may be all her neighbors need to believe that he's a more qualified detective. The title refers to a venture that her assistant, Mma Makutsi, initiates as a sideline, so that men can learn what's considered to be a woman's skill in a private setting. There Mma Makutsi finds a potential love interest who, Precious discovers, is not what he seems. I knew that everything would turn out OK in the end, but I still enjoyed reading how Precious manages it, without hurting anyone's feelings.

Thursday, February 28, 2008


James Frey's not-necessarily-factual memoir, A Million Little Pieces, is a gritty, gripping tale of his drug rehab. He provides a window into a life that is as foreign to most of us as Mars, and his recovery is nothing short of miraculous, but he does not do it alone. As in Eat, Pray, Love, sometimes the people he meets are more fascinating than the protagonist. Of course, he had some help in almost destroying himself, too, but his is not the voice of a victim at all, and his culpability helps make this book special. He assumes full responsibility for the disaster that is his life and refuses to blame his family or his genetics, although both obviously play some role in his addiction. He also refuses to give himself up to a higher power, as required by AA. It's an amazing journey, and his words echo his experiences with their mind-numbing repetition. Particularly enlightening is his constant need for more, more, more, and in the absence of drugs or alcohol, this applies to food, which his body isn't able to digest at first. Don't let the writing style dissuade you from reading an engrossing story that grabs you and doesn't let go.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

THE BRETHREN by John Grisham

The Brethren is another guilty pleasure from John Grisham. Three judges in prison, known as, you guessed it, "the Brethren," have come up with a seemingly perfect extortion scheme, and they're the most likeable characters in the book. What's wrong with this picture? At some level, I guess I admired their resourcefulness. The book is all about money and power, and the character development is nil. The Brethren's biggest vulnerability is their alcoholic attorney who shuffles their correspondence. Will he betray them and make off with their loot? Who's going to win out—the Brethren or their high-profile victim whose ethics are really no better than theirs, and he lacks their charisma. And, best of all, was Grisham prescient in foreseeing events that occurred after his book came out in 2000?

Monday, February 18, 2008


Days of the Endless Corvette by Man Martin is a nice blend of magic, homespun wisdom, and laugh-out-loud anecdotes. Earl Mulvaney is a man of few words and an extraordinary car mechanic. The term "Endless Corvette" refers to his theory that entire cars can be spawned from the leftover parts of other cars—in this case, a '53 Corvette. His saintly and unassuming nature wins over more than one detractor, and you'll wish that you had a friend like Earl. Actually, you'll wish that you'd known many of the characters in this book, or maybe you have. My personal favorite is Jimmy, Earl's boss, who doesn't believe in God but has no problem believing Earl's theory. In fact, he adds one of his own about cars having evolved from fish, fins and all. He's also the source of many of the hilarious irreverent anecdotes. I'll never forget the one about evolution and turning the other cheek. In some ways, this book reminded me of Daniel Wallace's Big Fish in that it rings true in many ways, particularly the outcome of Earl's romance, amid all the enchantment of a tall tale.

Friday, February 8, 2008


Anne Tyler's books are usually full of quirky characters, but those of Back When We Were Grownups are not as quirky as most. Rebecca is having a belated mid-life crisis in her fifties and laments that she is not leading her "true" life. Anchoring an extended family that includes stepchildren and even a live-in centenarian uncle-in-law (OK, he's quirky—and funny, too), she is an introvert masquerading as an extrovert. To regain her former intellectual self, she reconnects with her childhood sweetheart Will, now a professor, whose heart she broke when she wed another man. It's obvious that her husband Joe, who died six years into their marriage, put her life on a path that has been much fuller than it would have been with Will. Rebecca is a truly lovable matriarch, with her poor fashion choices and her knack for drawing out the best in people, particularly those who are stubbornly withdrawn. I may have to add this to my "favorite books" list.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

THE NOTEBOOK by Nicholas Sparks

The Notebook was my first Nicholas Sparks novel, and I wanted to read it before seeing the movie. It will probably be my last. The story was very sappy, and the writing was uninspired. If I'm in the mood for a quick, mindless read, I much prefer Janet Evanovich. The Notebook did have one redeeming feature, however, and that was the description of how Noah copes with his wife's dementia. Instead of burdening and frustrating her with the facts of a life she doesn't remember, he just spends time with her as a friend. On her good days, he reads to her a notebook that tells the story of how they got together but tells her that it happened to someone else. On especially good days, she realizes that it's about her and him. I don’t know if this approach really works with Alzheimer's patients, but it seemed reasonable to me.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

AFTER THIS by Alice McDermott

After reading the final few pages of After This by Alice McDermott, I decided that this book is about celebrating life, although the family that the book follows for a generation is anything but joyous. The story is told in third person by an omniscient narrator, and, for baby boomers, it will strike a number of chords of nostalgia. At the beginning, the focus is on Mary, who becomes the matriarch, and then later on her husband and each of their four children, particularly the girls, Annie and Clare. Each character is then sort of written off with a sentence or two describing his or her future. In a way, this unusual technique was satisfying, in that it gave closure to that person's life. The tragedy that strikes this family is told in an almost detached voice, but the ramifications are insightful, particularly with regard as to how they are treated thereafter by relatives and acquaintances, as sort of shabby royalty. I was also intrigued by the notion that history repeats itself, as exemplified by the Mary/Pauline and later the Annie/Grace relationships. A lonely woman befriends a better-adjusted woman and later becomes dependent on her in some way. My favorite part is where Annie and Grace visit a professor's house, and Annie sees the life of the professor and her husband as ideal and unachievable. She's disappointed to find that Edith Wharton was not the spinster without passion that she had thought her life would resemble. Why are her expectations so low? This is a thought-provoking read and was runner-up for the 2007 Pulitzer.