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.