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.