Wednesday, December 30, 2009

LUSH LIFE by Richard Price

I love the double-entendre in this title. "Lush" can be interpreted as describing the classy restaurants and shops of the Upper East Side of NYC, or it can refer to the alcohol and drug abuse that is rampant. One reviewer noted that the mystery in the novel is resolved in the first third of the book. However, what the reviewer called "mystery" struck me as frustrating, so that I was relieved by its early resolution. The author seemed to be sowing the seeds of doubt for the reader, and I thought it made for a rather beguiling beginning actually. In any case, this is not a mystery novel or a thriller. It's a novel about solving a crime from a police detective's point of view. The cop is Matty Clark, and the other main character is Eric Cash, a restaurant manager who flees the scene when Ike, one of the guys he's out partying with, is shot on the street. Ike's father is so disoriented by the death of this son that he avoids his family and even tries to solve the murder himself. Matty finally begins to examine his own family issues, as his sons are not exactly model citizens. More exasperating, though, to Matty, is the lack of cooperation on the part of his supervisors. When it becomes clear that their mistakes have been a major hindrance to the totally botched investigation, Matty has to take the blame and overcome the consequences—persuading an indignant witness to provide more clues.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


I know that life is a miracle and that life is full of miracles, but this book goes way beyond that. Jeremiah Land can walk on air and heal with his touch, but for some reason he has not healed his severely asthmatic son Reuben. There's also a loaves-and-fishes-type incident, and frankly, this is too much hocus-pocus for me; I'm reminded of Richard Bach's Illusions. When Jeremiah's older son Davy busts out of prison for murdering the town bullies, his father and siblings set out for the Badlands to look for Davy in an Airstream that was bequeathed to them. They encounter a Fed who's also on Davy's trail, and Roxanna, a widow who shelters the family during a snowstorm. It wasn't clear to me whether Jeremiah was divorced from his first wife, who abandoned him and the kids when Jeremiah chucked med school in favor of becoming a janitor, due to, you guessed it, a miracle. Anyway, it's no surprise that Roxanna becomes Jeremiah's love interest and a surrogate mother to his children. My favorite thing in the book, by far, is Jeremiah's daughter Swede's epic poem about a man named Sundown who is chasing a bandit named Valdez. It seemed to me to be a bit beyond the capability of a 9-year-old, but that's just a small miracle, compared to all the rest. Given that her brother becomes an outlaw himself, she starts to sympathize with Valdez. The poetry dwindles, though, as the book goes on, and I was disappointed about that. Several people had recommended this book to me, but it was just too predictable and mushy for my taste.
Amazon: 4.5 stars (448 reviews)
Barnes & Noble: 4 stars (146 reviews)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


As with many translations, the unfamiliar, unpronounceable proper names interrupt the flow of the prose. For example, the main character's name in this Swedish novel is Blomkvist, which doesn't exactly roll smoothly off my English-speaking tongue. His female business partner and frequent lover is often referred to by her last name of Berger, but there is also a male character whose first name is Birger. The names of places are even more inscrutable. Still, the storyline is quite addictive, although it becomes somewhat gruesome and less engrossing in the second half. It's a good, old-fashioned mystery that reads like it was inspired by Dashiell Hammett. It also reminded me of the game of Clue, because the crime was committed on an unreachable island with a limited group of suspects. Blomkvist is a journalist whose reputation has been tarnished by a conviction for libel. Eighty-something-year-old Henrik Vanger has hired Blomkvist during his self-imposed sabbatical to investigate the disappearance of Harriett, Vanger's brother's granddaughter. The plot also made me think of the movie Blow-Up, because a photo becomes key to the investigation. Blomkvist hires Lisbeth Salander, an anti-social computer hacker with a photographic memory, as his assistant. Lisbeth has skeletons in her own closet and a personal vendetta against men who abuse women. In my imagination, she looks like the main character in the movie Run Lola Run. Perhaps this is part of the reason that this book is so popular; it conjures up striking visuals of the characters and the chilly Nordic landscape. Plus, there are enough evildoers—Nazis, rapists, corporate sleazeballs, etc.—to fill several novels.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

THE 19TH WIFE by David Ebershoff

It doesn't take much to convince me that a religious sect is wacky, but Ebershoff does much more than that. He interleaves a fictionally-enhanced version of the life of Ann Eliza Young, one of Brigham Young's last wives, with that of Jordan Scott, one of the many adolescent boys thrown out of modern-day Mesaland, which houses a Mormon spin-off group that still practices polygamy. What with the elders of the community snapping up all the young girls as wives, there just aren't enough women to go around, and the boys are evicted for the slightest transgression. Ironically, Jordan was left by the side of the road at 14 years old for holding a girl's hand, when he is, in fact, gay. Jordan's first person account of how he returns to Mesaland to solve the mystery of his father's murder has a much lighter tone than the overwhelmingly depressing story of the early Mormons in the 1800s. The author focuses on the subject of plural marriage in both storylines, which was not only encouraged but virtually required until the Mormons put out a manifesto banning the practice, partly because of the bad press Ann Eliza Young gave it and partly to ensure Utah's statehood. How the Latter-Day Saints justified the fact that something as fundamental to their faith as polygamy went from being sanctioned to being prohibited is a mystery to me, but it's even more puzzling why the women thought that allowing their husbands as many sex partners as they wanted was a ticket to heaven. Maybe the women felt they earned it with their suffering.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

THE LOST CITY OF Z by David Grann

What would possess a middle-aged, out-of-shape journalist to trek deep into one of the world's most unforgiving environments to search for an explorer who vanished 80+ years ago? When David Grann reviews Percy Fawcett's secret charts, it's as though he's consulting a treasure map, and his enthusiasm would be contagious if he hadn't already told us several horror stories from other quests into the Amazon valley. The author borrows a popular technique from fiction writers by pairing a current day storyline with one from the past. I think, too, that he wanted to see the Amazon region first-hand so that he could describe the jungle with clarity, although much had been denuded since Fawcett's disappearance. Fortunately, the author had the benefit of a satellite phone, a 4-wheel drive vehicle, and a boat with an outboard motor. In 1925, Percy Fawcett had none of these luxuries and set out on foot with his inexperienced team--son Jack and Jack's buddy Raleigh--on a quest to discover a possibly fictitious lost city. In fact, most anthropologists believed that the likelihood of a civilization being able to flourish in such a hostile environment was nil. Fawcett, however, was obsessed with finding it and convinced of his own invincibility—two factors that probably contributed to his demise and that of his young cohorts. Actually, one can only speculate as to what happened to them, but the most likely scenario is that they were killed by a violent native tribe. It's also possible that they succumbed to starvation, snake bite, infection, injury, or worst of all, infestation by any number of deadly creepy-crawly things. Grann himself has a day from hell in which he's been abandoned by his guide and forced to wade through waist-high water and tall reeds to reach a village, and he's not even sure if he's headed in the right direction. At least we know he survived to tell the tale.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

ANGELICA by Arthur Phillips

Things are not always what they seem. Angelica is the four-year-old daughter of Constance and Joseph and still sleeps in her parents' bedroom. When Joseph demands that Angelica be moved to her own room, Constance starts seeing a belligerent ghost who seems to threaten her and her daughter. She consults a spiritualist, Anne Montague, to eradicate the ghost. First, we get the entire tale from Constance's perspective, then Anne's, then Joseph's, and finally Angelica's. Perspective is obviously key, as the first three accounts differ wildly from each other, with each subsequent account making the previous one seem ludicrous. Constance's fears and suspicions are tainted by a tormented childhood, and Anne draws her own conclusions, based on what she observes and hears from Constance. Joseph's story is the most tragic, as he describes his bewilderment at his wife's actions and tries to gain some sort of grip on a household in disarray. Angelica is like a pendulum, contributing to the general sense of distrust between her parents, swinging her affections from one parent to another. In this case, truth is in the eye of the beholder. I wonder if my sense of what happened would be altered if I had read the sections in a different order.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Renee is the frumpy 54-year-old concierge in a posh Paris residential high-rise. Paloma is an ultra-precocious 12-year-old who resides in the building with her wealthy, educated, superficial family. These two narrators ultimately find themselves kindred spirits, joined by new resident Monsieur Ozu, a Japanese gentleman who has aroused the curiosity of everyone else in the building. Both Renee and Paloma are leading a clandestine life, but Monsieur Ozu recognizes almost immediately that Renee, despite her impoverished upbringing, is a closet intellectual with a finely-honed appreciation for the arts. She quotes Proust and Kant, recognizes Mozart's Reqiuem when it is blasted from Ozu's bathroom, and prefers Dutch painters over French. Paloma's chapters are journal entries of "Profound Thoughts." She is the top student in her school but keeps her smarts in check so as not to draw too much attention to herself. She is also matter-of-factly planning suicide, unless something to live for appears in the meantime. At times, both Renee and Paloma wax philosophical, making the book a bit of a snoozer in the beginning. However, after the three main characters discover each other, I became hooked. Will Renee overcome her reticence and break out of the shackles of her class and position? Will her new friendships give Paloma the raison d'etre that she's seeking? Renee is the Cinderella character that we're hoping has found her prince, and Paloma provides her own brand of cynical humor. Her mother immediately carts her off to the family psychiatrist when Paloma tells the family that she hears voices, just to get them off her case. The scene where she cuts a deal with the shrink is priceless.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

LARK & TERMITE by Jayne Anne Phillips

I had to read the first ten pages of this book three times, but after that it grew on me, to the point that the characters became people I could hardly let go of. The book takes place over four days in 1959 in Winfield, WV, and gives the perspective of three characters. A fourth character, Corporal Robert Leavitt, is in Korea during the same four days in 1950. Back in WV, though, we have half-siblings Termite, a disabled nine-year-old, and Lark, a beautiful teenage girl whose top priority is Termite's care. They live with their aunt Nonie, who has raised both her sister Lola's children since they were toddlers. Lola was married to Leavitt, and Termite is his son. It becomes obvious to the reader who Lark's father is, but she doesn't find out until the end. I'm not sure why his identity is hidden from her or why her mother's fate is a secret. Lark's narration is the only one in first person, and her voice is certainly the heart of the novel. A peripheral character is the mysterious albino Robert Stamble, the new rep from Social Services, who seems to connect with Termite and doesn't seem bent on removing him to a group home. (Hint: His name is significant.) The pivotal event is a flood, during which Lark makes some discoveries about her family and realizes that their lives are all going to change. Perhaps the flood is a metaphor for washing away the past, but tunnels seem to be a bigger symbol. Leavitt and a crowd of refugees crowd together in a tunnel, seeking cover from American fire. There's also a tunnel in the train yard where Lark frequently takes Termite, because he enjoys the noise and vibration. The train represents escape for Lark, with light at the end of the tunnel, I suppose.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Jacob, a Union soldier during the Civil War, receives two unusual commands from his superior officers. The first is to murder his uncle in New Orleans, a Confederate slave-owner, who is plotting to assassinate Lincoln. The second is to marry Eugenia, the daughter of a Virginia businessman, who is an associate of Jacob's father. Eugenia, or Jeannie, as her family calls her, is suspected of passing Union secrets to the Confederacy, and Jacob will ostensibly put a stop to that activity once she becomes his wife. What's unusual here is that all of these characters are Jews, as is the Secretary of State for the Confederacy, Judah Benjamin, who also plays a role in the story. One of the most ironic scenes in the novel is during the Passover Seder where Jacob plans to poison his uncle. Slaves prepare and serve the dinner, even as the uncle is reading from the Haggadah about the liberation of the Jews from Egypt. Another theme is that of family loyalty versus patriotic duty, and Horn is a little heavy-handed in pointing this out. I don't really mind, though, because I'm not that proficient at reading between the lines. I especially enjoyed the intrigue—wondering who sympathizes with which side in the war, who's dead and who's not, and if Jacob the guilt-ridden spy will be found out. I also enjoyed reading about the coding of messages and hiding them inside baked goods. Jeannie's sister Rose speaks almost exclusively in palindromes, and that's cute at first but tiresome later for both the reader and Jacob. There's also the occasional anagram. I like puzzles, but this aspect of the book was a little too much like The Poisonwood Bible, or even The Da Vinci Code, for me. The book rides high on a good plot, though, and there is lots of plotting by the characters as well, especially those of the Booth variety.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Britt Johnson and his wife Mary are newly freed slaves, moving from Kentucky to Texas as the Civil War winds down. Before long, Mary finds herself a captive again—this time at the hands of the Comanche and Kiowa, who ambush their settlement while Britt is away. When he comes home to find his oldest son dead and the rest of his family missing, Britt puts aside the marital uncertainties that had recently arisen in his household and sets out to find Mary and his other two children. He is aided in his quest by Tissoyo, a young Comanche who has been temporarily ostracized from his people for flirting with another man's wife. A parallel story is that of Samuel Hammond, a Quaker bachelor and agent of the Office of Indian Affairs. His mission is to get the Comanche and Kiowa settled and farming on a reservation. The Indians, however, thwart his every move by declining the farm machinery that Hammond delivers to them and continuing to capture and scalp the settlers. Hammond faces a moral dilemma as he begins to withhold rations from the Indians as a means of modifying their behavior. The Indians represent a side to humanity that he's never imagined, much less encountered. The irony of his situation is almost comic, as he refuses to arm himself but finally has to request guards for his office. The author does an excellent job of trying to remain neutral in this conflict. Especially trying for Hammond and possibly for the author herself is the question of whether at some point captives should be allowed to remain with their captors. White children, after adapting to the more exciting and independent Indian way of life, are not always thrilled to be rescued and returned to a life that now feels claustrophobic. There's a lot to consider in this story of a situation with no easy answers, but I'm not particularly fond of the writing style—too many incomplete sentences. Perhaps this stilted communication on the author's part is somewhat indicative of the major cultural gap and failure to communicate that existed between the Indians and the settlers at the time.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

SATURDAY by Ian McEwan

How refreshing it is to read about a family that is affluent but not dysfunctional. Henry is a forty-something neurosurgeon, and his wife Rosalind is an attorney. Their two grown children, Theo and Daisy, are artistically-inclined and found their callings thanks to Rosalind's father, an egotistical, hard-drinking poet. Like Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, the entire novel takes place within the span of 24 hours. Henry witnesses a fiery plane on its way to Heathrow and then has a minor fender-bender, with major consequences, on his way to his usual Saturday squash match. Henry's ruminations on the events of the day, some mundane, including visits to his mother and to the fishmonger, and some not, provide a window into his soul. To some readers, the book may come off as a little too cerebral, but I didn't find it so. After all, the main character is a brain surgeon, and there's a fair amount of medical description, which I found fascinating. I don't think any author at work today writes more lyrically or with more vivid imagery than Ian McEwan. More important, though, are the intriguing ethical questions he addresses—also a staple of his novels. One of the big ones here is whether Henry is within his rights to use his medical expertise to dupe a sick man in order to save his own skin. One word to the wise: Do not read the book flap before reading the book, as it gives away a surprising incident that takes place late in the day/book.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

CHILD 44 by Tom Rob Smith

Leo is a respected member of the State Security organization in Stalinist Russia. However, he begins to lose faith in the Soviet doctrine when he realizes that he has arrested an innocent veterinarian and caused several unwarranted executions in the process. When his doubt surfaces, he is asked to investigate his beautiful wife Raisa as a possible traitor. This loyalty test ultimately results in the banishment of Leo and Raisa to a manufacturing town and substandard living conditions. There Leo comes to realize that a series of senseless child murders across the country are linked but have been blamed on a variety of unfortunate suspects, because the idea of a serial killer in the proletariat paradise is unacceptable to the powers-that-be. What's really fascinating about this book is not only the fact that horrific crimes are virtually swept under the rug but that those people who don't play along are enemies of the State. I have to assume that this depiction is fairly accurate, and the question of how a government gets away with this is thought-provoking. Constituent compliance is a requirement and a reality. It's bizarre that perceived party loyalty dictates one's living conditions and workplace status in a supposedly Marxist society. The book presents farmers and other rural residents as being more likely to buck the system, since the restrictive government seems to be more of an obscure concept that has no positive bearing on their lives. These portrayals commanded my attention much more than the "thriller" aspects of the novel, which were fairly typical in that everything is wrapped up neatly at the end.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

THE GIANT'S HOUSE by Elizabeth McCracken

The Giant's House is subtitled A Romance, and it really is an unusual love story. Peggy Cort is a young librarian who really doesn't like people. Then she meets 12-year-old James Sweatt, who is off-the-charts tall. As James keeps growing, so does Peggy's attachment to him, and by the time he reaches adolescence, she realizes that she's in love with him. We discover early in the book that he will die young and that his size presents a plethora of health problems, makes him accident-prone, and probably renders him impotent. He is also unable to do the simplest things that most of us take for granted, such as traveling by airplane, buying department-store clothes, or walking in town unnoticed. I loved this book, not just for the tender story and doomed characters, but also for the lovely tidbits that the author scatters throughout. In one scene, Peggy and James's aunt/guardian Caroline are sorting laundry and discussing mismatched socks. The lamenting of socks having lost their mates and being introduced to another abandoned sock is obviously a metaphor for James and Peggy, both misfits in very different ways. Another is near the end when Peggy concludes that library books, unlike purchased books that are monogamous with their buyer, are promiscuous, being caressed by anyone who asks.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

THE WHITE TIGER by Aravind Adiga

Balram Halwai, the son of a rickshaw-puller in India, is feisty and ambitious. He succeeds in his quest to get a job as a rich man's chauffeur, and we know from the beginning that he kills his boss and becomes an entrepreneur. This set me up to want to find out why he did it and how he got away with it. Balram tells his story in the form of a (very long) letter to the premier of China who is coming to visit Balram's city of Bangalore, ostensibly to find out how to bring technology and entrepreneurship to China. Balram begins by describing the paradox that is India—the high-tech outsourcing companies surrounded by slums with open sewers and contaminated drinking water. Then he proceeds with the story of his life, including his father's death from TB at a public hospital with no doctor. This sounds incredibly bleak, and it gets worse, but Balram's voice is laced with dark humor and sarcasm, and I found myself ashamed to be laughing. I love that Balram justifies the murder of his boss by observing that we often honor our murderous leaders with statues. The author seems to enjoy pointing up all the dichotomies that exist in India. For example, graft and election fixing are rampant in a country that considers itself a democracy. The rich are corrupt, while their poor servants are scrupulously honest to avoid the wrath of their masters. Sadly, the book offers no hope that India will ever be able to dig itself out of this situation, and certainly the author is not suggesting that the country needs more Balrams. The irony is that Balram escapes poverty by emulating the every-man-for-himself attitude of the men in power.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Three stories, their relative timeframes unknown, converge at the end, all involving lopsided pairings of a sociopath with his pathetic but sane partner-in-crime. Ryan is a twenty-something who has violently lost his hand in the first few pages. We find out later that he and his new-found dad Jay are identity thieves, changing personas as fast as you can say "passport photo." Ryan, presumed dead, by his family, feels a mixture of isolation and freedom when he reads his own obituary. In another track, Lucy is a money-hungry teenage orphan who has just run off with her charismatic history teacher George. She starts to become disillusioned, though, when they hole up in an abandoned motel in Nebraska, instead of seeking adventure and touring the country in George's Maserati. How, indeed, does a high school teacher afford a Maserati? We could feel sorry for Lucy if she weren't so superficial and spineless. The third story is of Miles and his quest to find his missing paranoid-schizophrenic twin brother Hayden. He cannot seem to proceed with his own life until he uncovers the secrets of Hayden's. Miles is a very forlorn character but the only one we really have any sympathy for and the one whose identity is really most in need of enrichment. He heads to the Arctic Circle after receiving yet another obscure postcard from Hayden. Perhaps this time he will find what he has been looking for, either his estranged brother or himself.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


It's a little juvenile, and it comes across as a sort of self-help book, but it has its appeal, especially if you're a car racing fanatic. Also, it's narrated by a dog, Enzo, who understands a lot more about what's going on than some of the people. Denny, his owner, experiences setback after setback, heartbreak after heartbreak, but keeps on trucking, so to speak, and doggedly, I might add. In fact, Denny is a little too perfect. Enzo expects to be reincarnated as a man with all of Denny's best qualities, including his love and aptitude for racing. In this life, unfortunately, Enzo can't speak, and that inadequacy, along with the lack of opposing thumbs, is a source of endless frustration for him. He's pretty much on target, though, in his assessment of the various human characters that populate the book; I love it that he dubs Enzo's in-laws the Evil Twins, a moniker that they richly deserve. Mostly, the book offers up car racing as a metaphor for life. Even though I thought the writing was pedantic (What can you expect from a dog?), I boohooed at the emotional ending.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


Fat Ollie is a detective investigating the assassination of a local politician. He's an equal-opportunity bigot, and his novel, except for the last chapter, has been stolen from his patrol car. Yes, he's written a very short (30+ pages) novel, Report to the Commissioner, and has no backup copy, because he composed it on a typewriter. So there are two crimes being solved here, and how they become intertwined is hilarious. The transvestite prostitute, Emilio/Emmy, who stole the novel, doesn't realize that it's fiction and starts doing some sleuthing of his own to locate the people in the book. There's also a drug deal going down in the middle of it all, with some two-bit crooks who have no idea what they're getting into. Needless to say, this is not a thriller or a serious mystery. Fat Ollie's novel is included in its entirety and provides lots of laughs, especially as its author repeats himself to be sure that he's covered all the bases grammatically. And the protagonist of Ollie's book is a female cop, so that it's almost as if Ollie is channeling a woman in the book. It's a not-too-subtle parallel with the Emilio/Emmy character.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

AMERICAN WIFE by Curtis Sittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld imagines the life of Laura Bush with obvious fictional embellishments. The novel largely focuses on the conflict between staying true to one's principles and being a supportive spouse. Alice Lindgren is the stand-in for Laura, and Charlie Blackwell represents George W. Bush here, and the setting is Wisconsin instead of Texas. Charlie is a ne'er do-well from a rich and powerful Republican family with a mother whose nickname is Maj (short for Her Majesty). Alice has a middle-class background and leans left of center politically. The couple's political differences don't so much hamper their marriage as they have the potential to undermine Charlie's political aspirations. Plus, Alice has a few skeletons in her closet, and, of course, Charlie's transgressions are sort of swept under the rug after he gets religion. Alice makes the observation that it's much more difficult to be mildly famous, in which case people come out of the woodwork wanting a piece of you, than to be really famous, in which case you're totally insulated from all that. From my perspective, though, I realized that Laura Bush probably has had a much more colorful life than I have given her credit for, even if she didn't do most of the stuff in the book. Since my political leanings are more in line with Alice's than with Charlie's, I enjoyed the book. Your reaction may be different if you lean the other way, because certainly some of Alice's behaviors are very un-First-Lady-like.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Donna Tartt's The Secret History is a book about a murder, but more in the vein of Crime and Punishment than Presumed Innocent. Richard, our narrator, joins a group of five young men and one woman in the study of classic Greek at a small private college in Vermont. He goes to great lengths to conceal the fact that he's there on scholarship, as this fact might alienate him from his blue-blood classmates. We learn on the first page, though, that the group will murder Bunny (short for Edmund), one of their own. The way that this plays out is sort of a horror story, as Bunny, virtually blackmailing the others in the group, seems unaware that he's digging his own grave and leaving his friends with no other solution. The aftermath of the murder is even darker, as Bunny's friends have to feign grief while staying at Bunny's parents' home during the weekend of the funeral. The fear of discovery and the degeneration of trust within the group are, of course, much more difficult to bear than the problem that the murder was intended to solve. Remorse seems to be generally lacking. I did not love this book, partly because it's overly long, but also because it's impossible to imagine how these students, drunk most of the time, ever became Greek scholars. However, there are some interesting forces at work. Richard is a hanger-on, blinded by misplaced admiration for the other members of the group and mesmerized by their charismatic professor. The price he pays for trying to fit in is very high indeed.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


This book opens with an apocalyptic-type scene where a man is walking through ash and debris. Three pages later we realize that the scene is New York on Sept. 11, 2001. Keith is a lawyer who escapes from the South Tower and goes home to his estranged wife Lianne and young son Justin. He brings with him a briefcase belonging to Florence Givens, who lost it during a fall in the stairwell. The book is about these 4 people, primarily Keith and Lianne, plus Hammad, one of the terrorists. The Falling Man is a performance artist who seems to re-enact the leaps from the burning towers by falling head first with a harness and a non-bungee-like tether. (My favorite image is that of the Falling Man as a Tarot card.) Symbolically, Keith is the falling man, though, as he has a brief affair with Florence and then becomes a full-time poker player—possibly in some kind of homage to his poker-night friends who died in the World Trade Center. DeLillo makes copious use of pronouns, so that it sometimes requires several paragraphs of reading to determine who is the antecedent of "he" or "she." This technique emphasizes the disconnectedness of the characters that is prevalent throughout the novel. The tragedy has caused them to become somewhat robotic and caused me to consider the lives of the survivors and their families. The inclusion of Hammad's story, brief and incomplete, seemed unnecessary to me, and he doesn't come to life nearly as well as the terrorists did in The Garden of Last Days by André Dubus III. As far as Keith and Lianne are concerned, DeLillo sums them up in what is probably the most quoted and most telling line in the novel: "She wanted to be safe in the world and he did not."
Amazon: 3.5 stars (86 reviews)
Barnes and Noble: 3 stars (14 reviews)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

AWAY by Amy Bloom

Amy Bloom's tone in Away is a bit detached, so that the main character, Lillian Leyd, comes off as a bit detached also. That's somewhat appropriate, though, since Lillian has emigrated to the U.S. in the 1920s alone after the murder of her husband and parents in Russia. Her 4-year-old daughter Sophie escaped the massacre but is missing and presumed dead. Lillian's blunt plea at a hiring call for theatre seamstresses earns her a job and also the role of mistress to a theatre bigwig and to his handsome son, who needs a cover for his homosexuality. When Lillian receives word that Sophie is alive and living in Siberia, a friend advises her to take the land route to retrieve her. Adventures ensue as she travels cross-country in train broom closets, becomes an unwitting accomplice to a murder in Seattle, and eventually heads up through the Yukon toward Alaska. Lillian remains enigmatic and aloof throughout the novel, but I had to admire her sheer determination and an almost reckless fearlessness, which stems from the fact that she really has nothing to lose. The pace of the book is quite brisk, and I loved the periodic snippets that summarize the future of characters that are abandoned along the route. These and the last fifty pages make this book a very memorable read.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


Juliet is a thirty-something writer in post-WWII England, contemplating a subject for her next book. She receives a letter from a Dawsey Adams in Guernsey, one of the Channel islands, who owns a book that was formerly hers. Thus begins the correspondence between Juliet and the members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The club was formed as a ruse for being out after curfew during the German occupation of the island. (Potato peel pie--mashed potatoes sweetened with beets in a potato peel crust--was invented when there was little to eat there.) The book consists entirely of letters written by the various characters to one another, which make it easy to read in small bites, but you won't want to. The war stories from Guernsey are alternately tragic and hilarious. Coupled with Juliet's other correspondence--with her gay publisher, with her handsome but smarmy suitor, and with her friends--these letters make for a lively tale. The Guernsey residents, with a few villainous exceptions, are caring and nurturing but not without a sense of humor and a zest for life. They have weathered the worst for five years and come out with their sanity intact. Juliet eventually visits the island and then finds it increasingly difficult to leave as she finds herself drawn to both a motherless child and a man. This is the type of book that you savor, and I want to reread it already.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

THE TIPPING POINT by Malcolm Gladwell

The "tipping point" is sort of the straw that broke the camel's back. In other words, it's the factor that causes a trend to become epidemic. Gladwell makes his point that little things make a big difference via a variety of examples. The most distressing was a decade-long epidemic of young male suicides in Micronesia, tipped off by the glamorous and well-publicized suicide of a young man torn between two women. Many of Gladwell's examples, however, are about positive trends, including the unbelievable drop in the crime rate on subways in New York City, which demonstrates the power of context on human behavior. He also explains the rule of 150, which says that 150 is the maximum number of people that can work together effectively. Gore Industries (maker of GORE-TEX fabric), which operates under an unusual horizontal organizational structure, periodically breaks up units that have expanded beyond the 150-person threshold. Gladwell also covers more novel trends such as the comeback of Hush Puppies in the '90's and attributes all such social epidemics to 3 types of people: connectors, mavens, and persuaders. My favorite anecdote is the story of the experiment which gave us the term "six degrees of separation." This is fascinating stuff that should be intuitive but isn't.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


It's not clear if the title character in Susan Choi's A Person of Interest has the first name or last name of Lee, as that's his only moniker throughout the novel. This lack of a full name emphasizes Lee's academic stature as one of the "shorter poppies." The taller poppies, or those with a more flamboyant presence in the world of mathematics, are being lopped off by a mail bomber. The latest victim is Rick Hendley, a popular Computer Science professor whose office is next door to Lee's. Lee has mixed emotions about Hendley's demise, as he has always envied the constant stream of traffic to Hendley's office. Still, despite the depiction of Lee as a nondescript tenured professor at a nondescript Midwestern college, Lee has had a pretty interesting life. He emigrated from Japan as a young man and later stole the wife (Aileen) of a grad school friend (Lewis Gaither). When Lee receives an anonymous letter that attracts the attention of the FBI, suddenly he is a persona non grata with his colleagues and his neighbors. What's so fascinating here is that Lee and I drew completely different conclusions about who sent the letter, and I think it was Choi's intention to show that Lee's long-harbored guilt interferes with his ability to be objective about both the letter's contents and its authorship. The plot becomes Kafkaesque as Lee's life unravels at the hands of the media and the rumor mill, and it drags a little while catching us up on Aileen's son with Lewis. Born John, now known as Mark, he's totally unaware that the woman who raised him is not his biological mother. The book is ultimately a story of redemption as Lee tries to compensate for the dreadful mistakes of his past and finally appreciates the richness of his own life.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


There are convoluted family trees, and then there are those like Willie Upton's in Lauren Groff's The Monsters of Templeton. Hers is such a tangle that it's more of a closed loop. Willie embarks on a quest to discover the identity of her father with the fact that he descended from an unknown branch of her family tree as her only clue. Willie has just returned to her hometown of Templeton, a fictionalized Cooperstown, NY, just as a huge (dead) creature, hundreds of years old, has been removed from Lake Glimmerglass. The monsters in the title refer both to this creature and its possible progeny, as well as Willie's forbears, who have murdered, committed suicide, been murdered, and have harbored any number of other family secrets. Willie is recovering from a disastrous affair that concluded with her trying to run down her lover's wife in an airplane. Helping her cope is her hippie-mother-turned-nurse-turned-born-again-Christian, Vivienne, who sees the family research as a means of getting Willie's life back on track. There is also a benevolent ghost who helps Willie solve the riddle of her parentage, but I never grasped which of Willie's unsavory or victimized relatives had haunted the family cottage for generations. As in many such dual-storyline books, the ancient history is more captivating than Willie's moping and whining. One of my favorite episodes, though, is where a young Willie is reprimanded by her mother and the principal for punching a boy at school. When the boy confesses that he called her a bastard, the fatherless girl's transgression is quickly forgiven in the midst of embarrassed stammering on the part of the adults.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A BELL FOR ADANO by John Hersey

I read John Hersey's The Child Buyer in college and enjoyed a spirited discussion of it with a professor. Now I remember nothing about it, but I've wanted to read another Hersey novel every since. Written in 1944 about the Allied occupation of a coastal Italian town, the Pulitzer winner A Bell for Adano is surprisingly funny at times. Obviously Hersey is making a patriotic point and a plug for democracy with his American hero Major Victor Joppolo, whose fairness and good will contrast sharply with the corruption of the former Nazi regime. His real nemesis, though, is General Marvin—the type of bad-tempered American whose behavior Joppolo is continually having to apologize for. Joppolo has his hands full as he tries to fulfill basic needs like food and water, but he also wants to restore morale. One of his big tasks in this latter regard is to find a replacement for the town's bell, which was confiscated by the Nazis to be melted down into ammunition. Quirky Italian characters abound, from the head fisherman who refuses to set foot in a government office, to the town crier, who likes to put his own spin on proclamations. I haven't had this much fun reading about the military since I read Joseph Heller's Catch-22, which was a much more challenging read. Unlike Revolutionary Road, I think that this book has held up well over time.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett

Part of the enjoyment of reading this novel is in rooting against the self-righteous women you'll love to hate. The Junior Leaguers in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 60s, especially Hilly Holbrook, are leading the charge to encourage white families to build separate bathrooms for their black maids. On the other side of the battle against discrimination are the maids themselves, too frightened by the KKK and whatnot to take a stand, and one young white woman named Skeeter. Skeeter yearns to be a writer and manages to nab a job at the local newspaper providing tips on housekeeping. Since her privileged life has not afforded her any opportunity to develop any stain-removal skills, she turns to her friend Elizabeth's maid, Aibileen, on the sly. Skeeter then grabs the attention of an editor at Harper Row with her idea of writing a book based on interviews with black maids about their relationships with their employers. Eventually she becomes a pariah among her former friends, but she wins Aibileen's trust and also that of Minny, a maid whose sassy mouth has cost her a few jobs as well as her ability to find employment with Jackson's uppercrust. Minny works for Celia Foote, a woman with a white-trashy past and a husband who adores her. Celia has her own agenda, trying to gain acceptance by Hilly and her gang but doesn't stand a chance with the Southern gentry. Meanwhile, Skeeter can't find anyone who will tell her what happened to her family's maid, Constantine, who left town abruptly. The truth is a bit of a letdown after the buildup, but that's just a minor distraction. Stockett keeps up a brisk pace and lots of tension, as everyone, both white and black, clandestinely working on the book faces dire consequences if families, friends, or neighbors find out.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

LE DIVORCE by Diane Johnson

You'd think that a book made into a Kate Hudson movie would be somewhat frivolous. However, Diane Johnson's Le Divorce was actually a National Book Award Finalist, and I can understand why. The wry commentary on the differences between French and American culture make this book worth reading and keep it from settling into overwrought melodrama. The author comes down hard on the French for their nonchalance toward marital infidelity and their treatment of women as somewhat less than equal to their male counterparts. An American woman in Paris gets even less of a fair shake. Roxy is a Californian married to a Frenchman and is pregnant with her second child. When her husband leaves her, Roxy's younger sister Isabel comes to help out. However, Isabel's story soon overshadows Roxy's as she becomes involved with Roxy's uncle-in-law, Edgar, a married statesman in his seventies. Isabel knows that the affair will end badly but broadens her horizons while trying to keep up with Edgar's televised observations on world events. Isabel's odd jobs provide further intrigue—organizing papers for an eminent American writer, babysitting for former CIA agents, walking a Frenchman's dog—and a panorama of characters. When a possibly valuable painting becomes a point of dispute in the property settlement for Roxy's divorce, both families exemplify how greed trumps courtesy.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A SPOT OF BOTHER by Mark Haddon

This book is about a family with one of each, as a friend of mine would put it—a homosexual son, a daughter who can't seem to choose the right husband, a mother who's cheating, and a father who's obsessed with his own mortality. George's anxiety over his wife Jean's affair, or perhaps the fact that she might leave him, has led to his being convinced that a patch of eczema is really cancer. George becomes increasingly irrational, while his daughter Katie has second thoughts about her upcoming marriage and his son Jamie realizes that he has lost the love of his life. George's hilarious actions have just the right amount of poignancy as we witness just how pitiful he has become. Still, everyone in the family is wrestling with his/her relationship issues in an offbeat comical manner. Jean ultimately has to choose between her unbalanced husband and her lively lover, who George unwittingly invites to dinner. Jamie has to try to win Tony back and overcompensates for his past inhibitions with regard to his sexual orientation in the presence of his family. Katie weighs her family's disapproval and her own emotional detachment against the knowledge that Ray, her dull fiancé, is a loving and sane partner, contrasting sharply with her charismatic but shallow ex-husband. Here's a family that has definitely put the fun back in dysfunctional.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

SARAH'S KEY by Tatiana de Rosnay

The first half of this book was so gripping and disturbing that I could hardly read it, and yet I could hardly put it down. The author is telling two stories 60 years apart. (She's not as clandestine as some authors, forcing the reader to discern which is which; she alternates chapters and fonts.) The 1942 story is about a Jewish family living in Paris and arrested as part of the Velodrome d'Hiver roundup, in which French police sent French citizens to concentration camps. The horror of this actual event is personalized by the fictitious characters, who seem even more real against the historical backdrop. Sarah, the 10-year-old daughter, not realizing the gravity of the situation and the unlikelihood that she will ever return home, has locked her younger brother Michel in the cupboard and taken the key with her. The 2002 story is about Julia, an American in Paris married to a Frenchman. She is researching the Vel' d'Hiv' for a magazine article and finds that her father-in-law's family moved into an apartment shortly after it was vacated by Sarah's family. My interest started to dwindle in the second half of the book, as it focuses more on Julia's vacillation regarding her pregnancy and her marriage, even as she puts the latter more at risk with her obsession over Sarah's story. The author seems to have a bit of difficulty justifying this obsession as misplaced guilt, and I found this to be somewhat of a flaw in the plot. Still, as historical fiction, it's a piece of history that begs to be told, and the author doesn't try to whitewash or justify the fear and apathy that produced such dire consequences.
Amazon: 4 stars (588 reviews)
Barnes & Noble: 4.5 stars (732 reviews)

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


This is a rags-to-riches story of a woman with good self-preservation instincts. The daughter of Jewish refugees, she is born in New York harbor so that, as her father says, "You are born here, they will not hurt you." Still, "they" try to hurt her, as she avoids being murdered three times. This might seem excessive in the hands of another author, but our heroine, Rebecca Schwart, leads a life on the fringe. Her father, a former math teacher, struggles to eke out a living maintaining a cemetery in rural New York. Her family never really gains acceptance there, and, after a miserable childhood of taunts and disappointments, real tragedy ensues when Rebecca is 14. As an adult she makes some serious mistakes but learns what's important in the process—her son. She's more furtive than plucky as she completely reinvents herself with new names for both her and her son about halfway through the book. Although I would say that she admirably maintains her integrity and dignity throughout, she does become somewhat manipulative in order to get what she wants financially—again, for the sake of her son, a piano prodigy. The letter exchange at the end changes the tone completely, mixing regret over a lost opportunity with some droll dogged persistence on Rebecca's part.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

RUN by Ann Patchett

This is the second book I've read in recent years about a white father with two black sons. (The other was The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers.) In this case, though, the sons, Tip and Teddy Doyle, are adopted, and a chance encounter with their birth mother changes their lives irrevocably. They find that they apparently have a much younger biological sister, Kenya, who confesses that she and her mother have been keeping close tabs on the Doyles for years. These three siblings seem to represent mind (Tip), heart (Teddy), and body (Kenya), as she is already an Olympic-caliber runner who embodies all the best qualities of the two brothers. There is also an older biological son, Sullivan, who is a ne'er-do well just back from Africa and not all that welcome at home. Despite the fact that he's white like their father (and deceased mother, for that matter), he's the black sheep, so to speak. His fatal mistake, alluded to early and revealed later in the book, is more sad than shocking. Kenya is the tie that binds, though, wise beyond her years, as she uses her charm, compassion, intelligence, and no-nonsense level-headedness to help each family member rediscover his way. This novel is briskly paced and, although not as robust as Patchett's Bel Canto, Run has its own merits, as the family drama is more intimate, with fewer characters and a shorter time span.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


This memoir, subtitled An African Childhood, zips along from adventure to tragedy and back again, without dwelling too long on the tragedies. The author and her family are white tobacco farmers during the violent transition period between white rule and black rule in Zimbabwe. The tragedies are the deaths of three Fuller children, one at birth, one from meningitis, and one by drowning. These types of deaths could have happened anywhere but seem almost inevitable in the hardscrabble world that the Fullers inhabit. The fallout is that Fuller's Mum, Nicola, sinks deeper into mental illness and alcoholism. Between bouts, Mum is capable and kindhearted, taking in strays and heading up an unofficial primitive medical clinic when necessary, saving the life of a slashed servant and going to great lengths to rehabilitate a tortured owl. When the going gets too tough, the family literally gets going, finding another estate to whip into shape in Malawi and then Zambia. Certainly they're poor, but Alexandra gets a glimpse of real poverty when she's asked to share a meal with a black family and realizes that her portion was intended to feed five people. The book is a study in contrasts in many ways. The sights, sounds, and smells of African wildlife are part of what keeps the Fullers there, despite the danger of mine blasts and guerilla gunfire.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Q & A by Vikas Swarup (republished as SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE)

I loved the structure of this book. The plot is fairly well known by now: a teenage boy from the slums of Mumbai is arrested for cheating to win the top prize on India's version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" He's an orphan with the name Ram Mohammad Thomas so that he can be a chameleon in whatever company his surroundings warrant—Hindu, Muslim, or Christian. Sprung from jail by a young female attorney, he tells her the pieces of his life that correspond to each question that he answered correctly on the game show. He has experienced some violent moments, including some that he orchestrated himself in order to protect a potential victim. In other adventures he's quite the clever picaresque hero, but he makes enough foolish mistakes to keep things lively. My favorite scene is where he pretends to be a Taj Mahal tourist guide after overhearing the spiel of an official guide. His mangling of the facts is absolutely hilarious, especially when he realizes that he can make quite a good living as an unauthorized guide. The kid may be the poster child for instant karma and gaining knowledge from life experiences, but it doesn't hurt to have a pretty solid memory capacity. Even though it's a foregone conclusion that he's going to answer all the quiz show questions correctly, the ending holds a surprise for the reader, as it offers the protagonist one more opportunity to punish a no-goodnik.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


This book grabbed me from about page 8 and never let go. The modern-day story is that Iris is seeing a married man but really has a thing for her stepbrother Alex. However, it's almost a subplot. The better story is, of course, about Esme Lennox, undeservedly held captive in a mental hospital for over sixty years. Esme is Iris's great aunt (her paternal grandmother's sister), but Iris's father is dead, and Iris has been led to believe that her grandmother Kitty was an only child. Now Esme's mental hospital is closing, and Kitty has Alzheimer's, thus leaving Iris to cope with the relocation of a possibly unstable relative that she didn't know she had. Lots of disturbing facts slowly come to light regarding Esme's girlhood and how she came to be "put away" as a teenager. Is she bipolar or schizophrenic or just merely ADHD? Certainly she is the victim of several unlucky events. The narrator or time period (or both) sometimes changes mid-page, but O'Farrell provides enough context clues to help the reader keep up. The only first-person narrator is the addled Kitty, and I thought this was appropriate, since she lives mostly inside her mangled brain anyway. Her musings always start mid-sentence and abruptly change to a different memory in the next paragraph. The ending is a little inscrutable, and I had to reread the last dozen pages to figure out what had happened.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

THE CLEARING by Tim Gautreaux

I've almost forgotten what it's like to read a book primarily about men. Actually, this book is largely about the setting—a lawless swamp in Louisiana in the 1920s. Gautreaux's descriptions of the muck and rain made me feel that I needed to wring out the pages from time to time. The main characters are Randolph and Byron Aldridge, brothers whose father is a lumber industry tycoon. Byron, the elder, forever damaged by the horrors of WWI, has disappeared, until he turns up as the constable for Nimbus, the site of a cypress sawmill. Randolph leaves his wife and home in Pittsburgh to manage the Nimbus mill, which his father has purchased in the hope that Randolph can bring Byron back into the fold. The conflict between the brothers is rapidly overshadowed by the violent one-upmanship that ensues as they unite against the Sicilians, purveyors of entertainment in Nimbus—liquor, women, and a crooked card dealer. Randolph is at first appalled at Byron's use of bullets to resolve the frequent fights that break out in the saloon but soon realizes that sometimes one man has to die to prevent the deaths of a dozen others. At times I thought I was reading a slimy reenactment of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, complete with brothers as the good guys. The title refers to more than just what is left after miles and miles of cypress trees have been cut down. There's also the clearing of tensionsbetween the brothers and certainly the clearing of the debts paid after the Sicilians' increasingly horrific vendettas against the brothers in retaliation for killing one of their own. There are almost as few men left standing as there are trees.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


This saga, spanning the decades between the end of WWI and 1954, is rich in characters, rich in plot, and Louise Erdrich's writing is richly eloquent. Fidelis has returned to his home in Germany after losing his best friend in battle and marries his buddy's pregnant girlfriend Eva. Fidelis emigrates to the U.S. and gets as far as Argus, North Dakota, before his sausages run out. (He's a butcher by trade and brings sausages to fund his cross-country trip.) After he sets up shop, Eva comes over, and they raise a family. Meanwhile, two other characters, Delphine and Cyprian, are touring with their circus act in which Cyprian balances atop chairs stacked on Delphine's belly. The two of them settle down in Argus, Delphine's hometown, with Delphine's father, Roy, the town drunk, and masquerade as a married couple, although Cyprian is gay. The lives of Fidelis, Eva, Delphine, and Cyprian become intertwined, and Delphine's balancing act becomes a metaphor for how she becomes responsible for the well-being of so many men—Roy, Cyprian, Fidelis and his four sons. The book has its share of tragedies, but I really like that the story is told in a not overly sentimental style. There are also a couple of mysteries, including that of the 3 bodies Delphine and Cyprian find in her father's cellar and the mystery surrounding the identity of Delphine's mother. There is also at least one laugh-out-loud revelation after a healer visits Marcus, one of Fidelis's sons, following a near-tragedy that is the most gripping section of the book.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

THEM by Nathan McCall

I have wanted to read Nathan McCall's Them every since it came out because of its Atlanta setting. The storyline was appealing—gentrification of an intown neighborhood, with a conflict boiling just below the surface, ready to explode at any moment. Barlowe Reed is an African-American renter on mostly-black Auburn Avenue. Sandy and Sean Gilmore are his new white next-door neighbors. Sandy inches into a tenuous friendship with Barlowe, but Sean becomes increasingly more fearful and belligerent as tensions build within the community, and reverse racial discrimination ensues. The repercussions are a bit like the movie Crash, where even the best-intentioned whites eventually succumb to fear of their black neighbors. The dialog is priceless, although some of the word spellings made it difficult to figure out what was being said. My favorite section, though, is the very beginning, where Barlowe expresses his aversion to the ubiquitous American flag a little too vehemently. I can totally identify with his frustration, as the flag somehow has come to symbolize support for U.S. policy in response to 9/11.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

PEOPLE OF THE BOOK by Geraldine Brooks

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks offered a respite from the dreary, depressing books I've been reading this winter. It has an unusual structure, which I happened to like. The main storyline is of a modern-day thirty-something single Australian woman, Hanna Heath, who "stabilizes" valuable old books. In this case, she travels to war-torn Sarajevo to work on the beautifully illustrated Sarajevo Haggadah, which dates from the 1400's. Her story alternates with chapters that go progressively farther back in time, each telling some piece of history associated with something Hanna found in the book, such as a butterfly wing or a wine stain. However, I found Hanna's story more captivating than anyone else's, especially that of the priest with a drinking problem and the rabbi with a gambling problem. I kept dozing off during the ancient history, only to perk back up when Hanna reappeared on the page. I found the text a little hard to follow at times, since each history chapter introduced a whole new set of characters. Plus, Hanna flits all over the planet, from Sarajevo to Vienna to Boston to London to Australia, so that the people in her life are a little hard to track also. One exception is her mother, a neurosurgeon who is still reeling from the fact that Hanna did not choose to study medicine and with whom Hanna has a very antagonistic relationship. Several discoveries, including the identity of Hanna's father, near the end of the novel provide a neat wrap-up and satisfying conclusion.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

THE SPARROW by Mary Doria Russell

Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow has a preposterous plot, but that doesn't really matter. A crew of eight, including 4 Jesuit priests, rocket off to a life-supporting planet near Alpha Centauri, called Rakhat. The book is a mind-dump of the priest who returns and reluctantly tells the story of how the rest died on Rakhat. Confession may be good for the soul, but Emilio Sandoz has a lot of healing to do, both spiritually and physically. His hands are mutilated and useless, and the ghastly events on Rakhat have destroyed his faith. Inadvertently and innocently, the earthlings upset the relationship between two human-like species there, the Runa and the Jana'ata. The crew includes a couple of scientific types, Jimmy and George, plus 2 women—Anne, a doctor and George's wife, and Sofia, a former prostitute who creates AI programs that replace human workers. Both Emilio and Jimmy are in love with Sofia, but Emilio must choose between Sofia and his chaste contract with God. The title, explained near the end, refers to a line of scripture that says that, although God sees a sparrow fall from the nest, he doesn't stop it from happening. Emilio is the sparrow whom God allows to be tormented, but at least he survives. The real sparrows are the other members of the crew, whom God allowed to perish. It's interesting that the author is a former Catholic who converted to Judaism. This is an unforgettable book, for both believers and non-believers.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road has not held up well over time. For one thing, the dialog may have been appropriate in the 50's, but today it sounds dated, with questions like "Are you sore at me?" and sentences frequently ending with "you see?". The subject matter is a little offbeat also. Frank and April are a young married couple with two children and consider themselves far too interesting to be living a conventional life in the suburbs. We're supposed to believe that April's unhappy childhood has rendered her incapable of love and that Frank's boring job is just a way station on the road to bigger and better things. To reach their true potential, April cooks up a half-baked plan to move to Europe, where April will be the breadwinner doing clerical work and Frank will have a chance to find himself. If this sounds to you like something that only artists or writers would do, then join the club—so do their friends and neighbors. Frank does, however, have the gift of gab, and a marketing flyer that he dictates off the cuff grabs the attention of a company executive, making the move seem less desirable. I'm not sure if there's a point being made here, but the book implies that hurtful words tossed out in a moment of anger produce dire consequences for this couple. They just did not seem real to me, but I'll bet that Kate and Leo bring them to life on the big screen.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

THE GREAT STINK by Clare Clark

The Great Stink by Clare Clark has an appropriate title in that it describes in icky detail the London sewer system of the mid-1800's. This is a historical novel about the replacement of that system. Although billed as a thriller, the mystery does not develop until about the halfway point. By then, you're accustomed to wrinkling your nose at the descriptions of the stench and of the filthy Thames River. The poverty and dinginess are reminiscent of Oliver Twist. The two main characters meet only once. One is William, an engineer working on the project, who suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome. The other is Long Arm Tom who scavenges for valuable trinkets in the sewers and, along with his friend Joe, catches rats that will be devoured by vicious dogs for sport. The advent of the new sewer will put him out of business. Fortunately, he happens upon a raggedy dog that turns out to be a very efficient rat destroyer. Tom plans to retire on the sale of Lady to a gentleman known as the Captain, who, not surprisingly, turns out to be a no-good-nik. The mystery is that of a murder that takes place underground and that William witnesses but can't be sure he didn't commit himself during one of his blackouts.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

ALIBI by Joseph Kanon

Joseph Kanon's Alibi exudes tension, especially on the part of its two main characters, Adam and Claudia. It's a case of seemingly good people doing bad things for good reasons, at least in their minds. Their actions, of course, compromise their goodness, and their consciences. Keeping a morbid secret between the two of them becomes an unbearable strain, on themselves and on their relationship. The story is set in Venice immediately after WWII, and Adam is a former investigator of German war crimes for the American Army. Claudia is an Italian Jew who stayed alive by becoming the mistress of a Nazi officer. Adam meets Claudia at a party while staying with his mother, who is about to marry an Italian doctor that she has known since before Adam's father died. Adam becomes obsessed with the notion that his mother's fiancé was a Nazi sympathizer, largely based on Claudia's eyewitness account of his having turned her father over to the SS. The plot becomes a bit tangled, and the finale is especially confusing. In any case, as far as the deeds of Adam and Claudia, the big question here is whether the end justifies the means.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


Like Dubus's first novel, House of Sand and Fog, The Garden of Last Days has several flawed, desperate characters—three, to be exact. April is a single mother working as a stripper trying to save enough to buy a house or two. Bassam is a customer at the strip club who just happens to be leaving for Boston shortly to participate in one of the 9/11 hijackings. AJ, another customer, is an angry wife-beater who refuses to acknowledge the gravity of his sins. All of the action takes place in Florida during the several days preceding the 9/11 tragedy. April's usual babysitter has gone to the hospital with a panic attack, and April uneasily takes her daughter Frannie to the club where Tina, a sort of housemother, will keep an eye on her for a price. Tina, however, is derelict in her duties, while Bassam is showering April with cash during a private dance. AJ, who has already been thrown out of the club for the night, spots Frannie in the parking lot and decides to save her from, in his mind, her obviously neglectful mother. I read this book with some trepidation, given the gritty outcome of House of Sand and Fog. The theme here, though, seems to be appreciation of one's family and loved ones and learning from one's mistakes. Bassam and his murderous cohorts are the least interesting characters as they try to justify their carousing while seeing themselves as martyrs. AJ is a saint next to them.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


How could I resist reading a bestseller written by a fellow software developer? Wroblewski borrows his plot from Hamlet, complete with the ghost and the poison, but to enjoy this book you really need to like dogs or at least like books about dogs. The Sawtelle dogs have been bred for generations for nebulous qualities and trained to be superb companions at eighteen months. In this book their characters are just as richly drawn as those of the people, with the exception perhaps of the title character. Edgar is an adolescent who has been mute since birth due to a physical limitation. Things really get rolling when his father dies suddenly and Edgar is unable to call for help. Edgar's mother Trudy is not particularly endearing, especially when she takes up with her husband's shady brother Claude. A not-so-accidental accident prompts Edgar to leave home with nothing but the clothes on his back and three loyal dogs. The section of the book that follows is the most gripping, as Edgar has to resort to breaking and entering to feed himself and the dogs. There are several Harry Potter-like supernatural events, including a foretelling of Edgar's fate. On the one hand, they detract from the book's realism, but, on the other hand, they're integral to the story, just as they were in Hamlet.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

TERRORIST by John Updike

John Updike's Terrorist moves along rather sleepily at first, but Updike is just setting the stage for things to come. This novel takes a very disturbing look at the insidious way in which a religion or cause can mold a malleable young person into a pawn for sinister purposes. In this case, the cause is Muslim extremism a year after 9/11. Its prey is Ahmad, who has embraced Islam as his rudder through the usual taunts and temptations associated with being an American teenager. His high school guidance counselor is Jack Levy, a non-practicing Jew, who finds out too late that Ahmad, an excellent student and athlete, has no plans for college. Ahmad, instead, plans to drive a truck for a living, setting off alarms with the reader as to whether he will have a mission other than furniture delivery. Jack is more like the protagonist of Updike's Rabbit series, suffering from ennui and disillusionment. He's the perfect antagonist to Ahmad's singular purpose. What especially got to me was the pursuit of someone so young and promising to make the ultimate sacrifice for the cause. His purity is so appealing that it's particularly upsetting to realize that he's being used. Although it's easy to target Islam as the seducer here, just remember that Jim Jones was not a Muslim.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


In A Thousand Splendid Suns, two wives of the same man become unlikely friends in turmoil-ridden Afghanistan. Mariam is the illegitimate daughter of a rich man and finds out the hard way where she stands with his family. Laila is twenty years younger with an educated father and seemingly bipolar mother. Both women end up married to the much older Rasheed, who is virtually the devil incarnate. I enjoy books in which there is a moral dilemma and shades of gray where right and wrong are concerned, but most of the characters in this book can be divided into clear groups of good and evil. For that reason, I think The Kite Runner is Khaled Hosseini's better book, but a lot of women disagree, perhaps because A Thousand Splendid Suns is primarily about women. Only Jalil, Mariam's father, straddles the line between good and evil. He is conflicted as he tries to balance his love for Mariam with his desire to protect his good name. His biggest flaw, like that of the protagonist in The Kite Runner, is that he is a coward, and this weakness has tragic consequences. Also, The Kite Runner has an event that defies reality, whereas this book is almost too real. The brutality that dominates these women's lives is unimaginable, although I don't doubt for one second that their situation was common in Afghanistan under the Taliban. The ending is fairly predictable and sentimental, but at least Hosseini's books offer some degree of hope.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


The stark prose of Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses matches its stark but vividly described Norwegian landscape. As with most translations, however, it has occasional phrasing and vocabulary that seem odd. The 67-year-old narrator, Trond, has moved to a remote cabin without indoor plumbing after losing his wife in a car accident that he survived. He describes himself as having "golden trousers" because he has always been lucky. (See what I mean about the translation?) However, I wouldn't consider him to have been that lucky. Not only did he lose his wife, but he was fifteen when he last saw his father. The tragic events and revelations of the last summer that he spent with his father are brought back to the surface when he reconnects with Lars, who lived near Trond's father. The way that the story is told, mostly in flashback, in a very wistful but not self-pitying manner, is just as important here as the characters and plot. It seems more haunting than sad; the book is never dreary. Also, this book is reminiscent of Leeway Cottage (see my July 2008 post) in which Jews were smuggled into Sweden from Denmark. Again, there's a history lesson here that Sweden served as a refuge for Jews from all over Scandinavia during WWII. Trond ends his story without asking the questions that I as a reader wanted to have answered, but perhaps that's partly the point—that we really don't need to know everything.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

THE GIVEN DAY by Dennis Lehane

I thought that Dennis Lehane's The Given Day would be more of a baseball book, as I'm a big fan of the nation's pastime. However, Babe Ruth figures into the story only tangentially as a means of helping to set the stage—Boston, as WWI is drawing to a close, and Prohibition is on its way. This book is a nice blend of fact and fiction, and the facts are more engrossing than the fiction. Boston at that time was a city in trouble, anxious to blame just about everything on the Communists, except perhaps the flu epidemic, and by the end I felt as if that had happened a couple of books ago. The family histrionics are fairly predictable, with the bad son (Connor), the good son (Danny, our hero), and the young son (Joe). Of course, Mom and Dad have their heads in the sand and think that the good son is really the bad son and vice versa. There's also Eddie, who came over on the boat from Ireland with Dad and is evil personified. Dad and Eddie are cops on the take, and Danny, also a cop, gets involved with unionizing the police force. Then there's Luther Laurence, a black man on the run from the law. Even with all these cops around, only Eddie knows of Luther's past, and it is information that he uses for his own vile purposes.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

BRICK LANE by Monica Ali

Monica Ali's Brick Lane is the story of Nazneen, a Bangladeshi woman living in London with her older, fatter husband, Chanu. Theirs is an arranged marriage, but Nazneen is pretty much resigned to whatever fate dishes out. At least Chanu is kind, but, while he is educated and somewhat of a dreamer, he stifles Nazneen's thoughts of expanding her horizons, even discouraging her from learning English. He inadvertently expands her horizons, though, by introducing a sewing machine into the house so that Nazneen can contribute to the family's income. Karim, the young handsome Muslim organizer who delivers and retrieves Nazneen's sewing projects, piques her interest in more ways than one. The book is full of colorful, though sometimes tragic, characters, including Nazneen's sister Hasina, whose "love" marriage doesn't work out so well, Nazneen's friend Razia whose husband is killed by frozen beef, and Mrs. Islam, who is the neighborhood loan shark. My biggest complaint is that there are a number of letters from Nazneen's sister, including one 20-page section, in broken English that is very difficult and annoying to read. Since neither Nazneen nor her sister speaks English, I don't understand the author's purpose in making the letters grammatically incorrect.