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.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

THE EGYPTOLOGIST by Arthur Phillips

The Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips has colorful characters, a convoluted plot, and humor to spare, although that definitely wanes toward the end. It's not a fast, easy read, however, partly because the entire story is told from journals and letters. Both of the primary puffed-up narrators think they have a book in them. One is Harold Ferrell, a former detective, now in a retirement home, who is writing to a man named Macy. Ferrell had a case in the 1920's that brought him to meet Margaret, Macy's aunt, and fell in love with her. The other, more prolific narrator and main character, is Ralph Trilipush, an inept and deluded archaeologist, who, in the 1920's, was Margaret's fiancé. Trilipush is in Egypt at the same time that King Tut's tomb is being exhumed, looking for a find of his own that will ensure his immortality. His quest is for the tomb of Atum-hadu, a possibly fictitious pharaoh with a taste for bawdy poetry. Trilipush's writings are hilarious during his early weeks in Egypt, as he sits for his portrait, orders ten tailor-made suits, and ponders which gramophone to take to the site. Phillips gives each narrator his/her own font, as there are also a few letters from Margaret and one key letter at the end from a man named Beverly Quint. I read this letter twice more after finishing the book before I finally grasped what had happened. I had to rethink the chronology and Trilipush's whereabouts after WWI.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

THE READER by Bernhard Schlink

The hype about the movie based on Bernhard Schlink's The Reader spoiled the plot for me, but the plot is not what's most compelling anyway. The book takes place in post-WWII Germany, where thirty-something Hanna comes upon fifteen-year-old Michael Berg, who is obviously ill. She walks him home, and, after getting over a bout of hepatitis, Michael visits Hanna to thank her. Thus begins an unlikely affair. (I'm reminded of The Last Picture Show without the comic element.) Moreover, Hanna harbors two big secrets that are wildly different in magnitude, but she guards them both equally closely. Hanna exits Michael's life abruptly but leaves a lasting impression, and then their lives cross again under very different circumstances while Michael is in law school. The book is largely about sins of omission, on the part of both main characters. It raises several disturbing questions, such as what constitutes betrayal and whether one should risk embarrassing a person in order to save him/her from larger consequences, when that person seems unwilling to save himself/herself. The biggest question, though, has to do with the Holocaust and what steps should or could the guards have taken to save the prisoners. Translations always seem a bit dispassionate to me, but in this case, emotional numbness is one of the primary themes, so that the absence of passion seems to be appropriate.