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.