Wednesday, December 29, 2010

ALICE I HAVE BEEN by Melanie Benjamin

Alice Liddell is the daughter of a dean at Oxford. Charles Dodgson, known to most of us as Lewis Carroll, is a professor there, who routinely takes Alice and her two sisters, Ina and Edith, out for picnics and boating excursions. Alice is clearly his favorite. She is not the prettiest—just the spunkiest. Mr. Dodgson dreams up a dream for Alice and tells the story during one of their outings. Alice loves being the star of the tale and begs him to write it down. The rest is history. Well, not exactly. I guess we'll never know if Mr. Dodgson was a pedophile or just a lonely man who enjoyed entertaining children. Of course, there are all those photographs that he made of young girls, including Alice, in somewhat provocative poses. On the other hand, Alice comes off as a bit of a Lolita, acting innocently coquettish without grasping the impact on poor Dodgson or the possible consequences. His relationship with the Liddell girls is broken off and Alice's reputation soiled for reasons she doesn't understand or perhaps remember. The book follows Alice into old age, and her life is full of tragedies, both related and unrelated, to the Dodgson business. As a child she had hoped never to grow up and ironically meets Peter Llewelyn-Davies, who was the inspiration for Peter Pan. Alice does live on as a child in the Lewis Carroll novels but hesitates to embrace the story or even read it, because she doesn't want to revisit what really happened with Dodgson. Benjamin uses suspense to keep our interest, as we, too, want to know what caused the sudden breach in their relationship. That and just the novelty of imagining Alice of Wonderland fame as a real person make this book an enjoyable read, but the author's frequent habit of burying sentences within sentences, set off by dashes, was annoying and prompted a lot of rereading. Although a minor theme of the book is that of accepting and embracing one's identity, even when it includes a modicum of celebrity, its more overriding message is that of facing and accepting one's mistakes, forgiving all the guilty parties, and hoping that they have returned the sentiment.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

ON BEAUTY by Zadie Smith

Wellington is a fictitious college somewhere near Boston. Howard is a white art history professor who cheated on his black wife, Kiki, with a white poetry professor, Claire. Howard is a staunch proponent of affirmative action and liberal politics in general, and Howard's nemesis, Monty, a black professor, is a stalwart of the religious right who wants to take the "liberal" out of liberal arts. There is a fair amount of contention among Howard's colleagues over Monty's right to espouse his right-wing opinions in a series of lectures and over Claire's right to include poor but talented students in her very exclusive poetry class, even though they are not enrolled at Wellington. These issues, however, are not as compelling as the more intimate ones facing Howard's family. The book opens with the very uncomfortable scene where Howard attempts to break off the engagement of his son Jeremy to Monty's daughter, Victoria, when the whole thing was a rather unfortunate misunderstanding. In fact, the book's most memorable events are all somewhat embarrassing, including Howard's youngest son Levi's attempt to rally his co-workers to refuse to work on Christmas Day. The irony is that Levi's family members are mostly atheists, and his coworkers are actually pumped about the opportunity to be paid double-time for the holiday. Howard and Kiki's daughter Zora's forte is argument, and she manages to blackmail her way into Claire's poetry class. The ten or so main characters become tangled in relationships with one another that are often surprising and usually regrettable. Although Kiki is the emotional and ethical conscience in the family, no one person is truly the central character; it's more of an ensemble cast. The finale happens in sort of a flourish that puts the finishing touches on this colorful canvas of a family with still a few challenges ahead.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

THE WEIGHT OF SILENCE by Heather Gudenkauf

Sandwiched between a disturbing opening and a too-neat ending is a nail-biter of a story. At first I thought, oh, no, not another book about an abusive, alcoholic husband and father, but that impression quickly faded. Two 7-year-old girls, Petra and Calli (best friends) have gone missing. We know that Calli is with her drunken father, Griff, who has eschewed his fishing trip to drag his daughter barefoot through the woods at 4 a.m. His muddled purpose is to take her to the home of Deputy Sheriff Louis, who Griff thinks is Calli's real father. Petra coincidentally disappears at the same time, following someone into the woods, of her own accord. The anguish of these two families steers the plot, especially as they come under the suspicion of special agent Fitzgerald, who is brought in to help locate the girls. Certainly both families have significant flaws and secrets, and the parents have to re-evaluate where they went wrong. The only truly likeable characters are the children, and they're not faring very well. Calli hasn't spoken a word in 3 years, since her father pushed her mother down the stairs, causing a miscarriage. Petra is Calli's full-time interpreter at school, reading Calli's expressions and actions to ascertain her thoughts and intentions, and then conveying them to teachers and classmates. When the girls disappear, there's more than enough guilt and blame to spread around among the parents. Several narrators alternate in the telling of events, both past and present, and no single narrative is very long. If you find yourself exasperated with one character, have no fear, because a different narrator is just a few pages away. This approach also helps build suspense, as we frequently have to abandon Calli's account of her abduction to hear what her mother or Petra's father is going through. It's nifty and thoroughly spellbinding.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


A book of over 1000 pages has to have several villains, and this one has at least four. Two are monks, one is a murderous nobleman, and one is an overrated carpenter. The action takes place in England in the 1300s and follows its main characters from childhood to middle age. During that time the plague rips through Europe, leaving entire families demolished, houses abandoned, and fields uncultivated. Religious figures rule and see the plague as God's punishment for man's (and woman's) lascivious ways. Simple health procedures like avoiding contact with victims and hand-washing are just coming into practice, but the clergy sees these precautions as unnecessary and even heretical. Caris is a forward-thinking woman who reluctantly becomes a nun on the eve of her wedding in order to avoid a death sentence for witchcraft. Her erstwhile fiancé Mirthen is a talented architect who is also way ahead of his time and devastated by Caris's fate. Gwenda is a peasant, forced to help support her family by pick-pocketing, and her father trades her to an outlaw in exchange for livestock. I had to marvel at the author's ability to manage a zillion characters and intertwine their lives. However, his writing style is neither lyrical nor memorable. I do remember enjoying The Pillars of the Earth, this book's prequel, but that was at least 15 years ago, and my literary tastes have changed since then. So I'm curious as to who's the audience for this book. Not the book clubbers. And not the casual reader, because its length is far too intimidating. I guess it's readers like myself who just wanted to relive their Pillars experience. Also, I was under the incorrect assumption that Fall of Giants was a follow-up to this book, but, no, it's the daunting (almost 1000 pages) first book in a projected trilogy.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


I've read a spate of books lately about two brothers where one brother is a nice guy and the other is bad news. Consequently, this book's plot seemed tired, familiar, and predictable. In some ways it reminded me of the movie Legends of the Fall, because there's a woman in the middle. My chief complaint, in fact, is about the women in this novel. Why do women authors portray their women characters as gullible and easily seduced by handsome, charismatic, unscrupulous men? Why are the men in this novel the only ones who see Jake for what he is—a cowardly liar and reprobate? His salt-of-the-earth brother Arthur is a farmer with a beautiful wife, Laura. While they were growing up, Arthur dealt Jake a severe blow when, for once, Jake wasn't crying wolf. Guilt causes Arthur to cut Jake a little too much slack after that, but not nearly as much as Arthur's mother does. Ian is the teenage son of the town doctor (in northern Ontario), who comes to work for Arthur so that he can be near Laura. I found Ian's story to be much more captivating than Arthur and Jake's. He struggles with choosing a career path, but that issue also resolves itself in predictable fashion. Ian's fishing buddy Pete is conflicted by his heritage, with one foot in the white man's land and one in the land of his native people, and his conflict also has a predictable outcome. Despite the fact that I found the book sort of hollow, it wasn't a chore to read by any means. I had to keep bracing myself, though, for Jake's next thoughtless or cruel move, and that's just not particularly fun.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


I recently heard a book referred to as a cozy mystery, and I think this is another one. The sleuth/heroine is sort of a young Nancy Drew with attitude. (The hardback version even has a similar type of cover with no dust jacket.) There's not much emotional chemistry among the members of the de Luce family, but eleven-year-old Flavia is into chemistry of the scientific variety. When an almost dead body turns up in their estate's garden, she can smell carbon tetrachloride on his dying breath. Constantly underestimated, Flavia solves the murder before the police do but after her father has been arrested for it. She uses common sense and keen observation to reconstruct the crime, using to best advantage her ability to solicit information from adults by feigning innocence. She's no goody-too-shoes, though, mixing her older sister's lipstick with poison ivy extract and eagerly awaiting the results. OK, this is pretty tame mischief, but that's what makes it cozy, right? She's also not above a little clandestine snooping and pilfering, or the occasional lie in the name of righteousness or self-preservation. This is a nice break from heavy literature, but don't expect too much, and perhaps you'll be entertained. I'm not sure if this book is targeted for young readers, but it certainly seemed that way to me. Let's hope they don't get any ideas about contaminating Mom's cosmetics when this book inspires them to pay more attention in chemistry class.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


In Michael Chabon's alternate universe, several million Jews inhabit Sitka, Alaska, thanks to the fall of Israel in 1948. Their days are numbered, though, because their land is soon to revert back to the U.S. government, and everyone is scrambling to apply to stay. In the meantime, our protagonist, a stereotypical overweight, alcoholic, divorced cop, Meyer Landsman, now reports to his ex-wife Bina, for whom he carries a well-lit torch. Among the "frozen Chosen" are a group of Orthodox Mafiosi, who may be responsible for the death of a junkie chess player in the same sleazy hotel where Landsman lives. I had procrastinated about reading this book because of its reputation for a smattering of Yiddish. However, there was a lot more that I, with my WASP heritage, was in the dark about than just the language. In fact, what bothered me most was that Chabon is a little smug and arrogant as he tosses around Biblical references and whatnot, so much so that, in the end, I didn't totally follow who did what to whom, especially the U.S. government. I did get the general gist of it, though, and that was sufficient. The metaphors are a dime a dozen but all spot-on, although sometimes I had to read them twice. The dialog is colorful and sometimes so sarcastic that it's hard to know who are friends and who are enemies, and sometimes the line is just intentionally blurred, as with Inspector Willie Dick (the names!), a small man whose accoutrements are all 2/3 normal size. To me, although a lot happens, this book is more about the over-the-top playful and rather rambunctious style than the plot. It brings to mind the old noir detective stories with their perfunctory telling of events but in this case also with a raucous sense of humor. There's one particularly funny scene in which Landsman and his partner join his partner's father for a homemade dinner of moose chili, moose quiche, and moose meatballs—just before the old man tries to off himself.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

GREAT HOUSE by Nicole Krauss

This was not a book that I couldn't wait to get back to. On the other hand, whenever I picked it up I was mesmerized—by the prose and the characters, and the desk that semi-binds the various narrators together. The book has two halves, each of which covers four different lives. The second-half stories pick up where their first halves left off, and the intricacies of their connections to one another become more clear, though not ever crystal clear, and the varying time slices are a little confusing. The desk is central really to only two of the stories. Nadia never really owns it but houses it for many years for Daniel Varsky, who is tortured and killed in Chile and therefore never coming back for it. A young woman who is purportedly his daughter comes to claim it, and Nadia is devastated after giving it up. She is a writer and now questions the quality of everything she has written, as the desk has become an anchor to herself and her craft. Varsky had received the desk from Lotte Berg, another writer, whose husband now mourns her passing and reflects back on the desk, a gift that once loomed in their house, making him jealous of his wife's secret past. Then there's Weisz, who wants to find the desk, which originally belonged to his father, who died in the Holocaust. For those who freely give up the desk, it carries no particular weight. For those who have it wrenched from them (Nadia and Weisz), the loss is far greater than that of a piece of furniture, and they embark on separate quests to retrieve it and of course the missing pieces of themselves. There are no happy characters in this book. A few are wistful at best—Isabel, returning to her lover, and Aaron, the character you'll love to hate, reluctantly opening himself to a reconnection with his estranged son, though perhaps too late. And speaking of missing pieces, reading this book is a little like finishing a jigsaw puzzle with a few pieces missing—frustrating and incomplete. I found myself futilely rereading sections for clues that I might have missed.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

BLINK by Malcolm Gladwell

The eyes may be the windows into our soul, but facial expressions are apparently good indicators of everything from how likely a marriage is to survive to how likely a suspect is to pull the trigger on his gun. It seems almost intuitive that over-analyzing is counter-productive, but Malcolm Gladwell gives us lots of examples to prove it, including a war game that made me cringe to think that our military really operates this way. Almost as scary is the process of determining how to handle ER patients with chest pain, in which case too much information may actually be misleading information. The author takes several detours, including one at the end that indicates that first impressions are not always valuable, particularly where a gender or racial bias may come into play. The conventional wisdom that women are inferior to men in the brass section of an orchestra is blown to smithereens by blind auditions. Warren Harding was elected President, apparently because he looked the part. Gladwell also points out that often our choices, in everything from speed-dating to music, do not always bear out what we say we like. In fact, we may claim to dislike something just because it's different, but without innovation, where would we be? Thanks heavens market research is sometimes ignored. In the case of New Coke, the taste tests were taken seriously, and they proved to be totally deceptive, since taking a sip of something is a lot different from drinking an entire 12-ounce can.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Guglielmo Marconi was not a physicist, but he won the Nobel Prize for Physics. Hawley Crippen was a kind, generous doctor who murdered his wife. These men lived at the same time, and both had unlikely fame. Marconi as a teenager was intrigued by the work of others in the field of wireless communication. He doggedly pursued a variety of techniques and firmly believed that wireless communication across the Atlantic was possible. His methods were strictly trial and error, with a fair amount of intuition thrown in. Obsessed with his work, Marconi left a trail of betrayed mentors and ignored family members. And it's easy to see why. As with all great inventions, his was an attempt to accomplish something previously considered to be impossible. The most interesting section is the one in which events prove that Marconi should have left some things to the professionals, such as the design of the structures on which he mounted his huge antennae on opposite coasts of the Atlantic. Crippen's parallel tale is more of a snoozer, and I kept thinking, "Let's get back to Marconi." The culmination is that Marconi's invention helps not only in the rescue of the Titanic's survivors but also in the miraculous capture of an unsuspecting criminal.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

THE LEGAL LIMIT by Martin Clark

Mason Hunt takes a break from law school to visit his mother and older brother Gates in Stuart, Virginia. Although Gates protected Mason from their violent father in their youth, he no longer has any redeeming qualities. He's a reckless drunk who can't hold down a job. Mason, though, still feels a brotherly obligation, even when he witnesses Gates's cold-blooded murder of Wayne Thompson, who fancies Gates's girlfriend. Mason takes charge by establishing an alibi and disposing of the murder weapon and any other incriminating evidence. This is obviously a very bad decision that will come back to bite him later. Gates fails to clean up his act and lands in prison on a felony drug conviction. Meanwhile, Mason has become the local commonwealth's attorney. When Gates's never-ending demands for Mason to help spring him yield no results, he goes a step further and fingers Mason for Wayne's murder. I love a good moral dilemma, but it's obvious from the start that Mason has made the mistake of a lifetime by covering for Gates. How he extricates himself requires some questionable ethical moves also, and the domino effect just keeps making things murkier and murkier. The story is based on a true story, and I don't usually like knowing that in advance. In this case, though, an innocent man's life is at stake, and I desperately wanted to know how it turned out. Of course, "innocent" here is a relative term, as Mason's obstructions to solving Wayne's murder have certainly left a bereft family without closure or retribution. The biggest surprise is at the end when the author, a circuit court judge, reveals his pivotal role in determining the outcome.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

THE SUMMONS by John Grisham

Ray Atlee, a law professor at the University of Virginia, has just received a summons from this father, a retired judge in Clanton, Mississippi, to discuss the estate. Judge Atlee is dying of cancer and is somewhat estranged from his two sons. Forrest, Ray's brother, is a seemingly incurable drug addict who has spent a lot of his father's money in unsuccessful rehab stints. When Ray arrives at the family home, he finds his father already dead, with an empty morphine pack nearby. Much to his surprise, he also finds boxes of cash totaling about $3 million, which is not mentioned in the will. Judge Atlee gave most of his money away and was not handsomely compensated during his years on the bench. Ray then goes on a quest to hide and protect the cash, even as he tries to find out where it came from and dreams of being able to afford the airplane he lusts after. Someone else knows about the money, though, and is trying to intimidate Ray into giving it up. Ray is a frustrating and flawed character, and I just wanted him to trust someone enough to tell them about the money and not let greed start to dictate his decisions. In a nutshell, that's what the book is ultimately about—trust and greed. Despite the smattering of clues, the ending came as a surprise to me. Stay tuned for The Legal Limit--a better legal thriller, also about a bad brother and a better brother.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


I thought that an accidental was a sharp or flat in a piece of music whose key would not normally have that note as a sharp or flat—metaphorically something outside the norm. In this case a stranger, Amber, inserts herself into the lives of the Smart family while they are renting a summer home in Norfolk, England. She knocks on the door with the apology, "Sorry I'm late," and Michael and Eve each think that the other has invited her. Eve's teenage children, Magnus and Astrid, both soon become attached to this mysterious woman, and their lives are transformed. At the beginning of the book we find that Magnus has been a party to a prank that led to a fellow student's suicide. His guilt is so crushing that he can barely function, and yet the rest of the family chalks up his anti-social behavior to normal teen angst. At first I thought that this aspect of the family dynamic would make for an overwhelmingly depressing novel, but I was mistaken. Amber is the focal point, as she blurts out blunt truths that the family interprets as outrageous jokes, thus lightening the tone of an otherwise bleak story. I really enjoyed this book, particularly the sort of cyclical aspect to the ending, but I have 2 complaints. First of all, it is too much like the movie Six Degrees of Separation, although Amber never claims to be acquainted with or related to the Smarts or anyone else for that matter. My second complaint is that after I finished reading it, I felt that I must have missed something as far as the author's intentions. When the Smarts return home from their vacation, they are in for a couple of big surprises that give them all a chance to make a new beginning. Does Amber have anything to do with one of the surprises and therefore exert an influence on their lives beyond what we already know? That isn't clear, so that I have to assume that the author intended for us not to know, but I'm still wondering if I missed a clue.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

THE HISTORIAN by Elizabeth Kostova

'Tis the season for ghost and goblins—and vampires. Actually, vampires seem to be in vogue year-round these days. The title applies to almost everyone in the book, including Dracula, who doesn't just delve into ancient archives but has witnessed five hundred years of history firsthand, since his decapitation in the 1400s. Three other historians, not of the undead variety, have embarked on a sort of treasure hunt to locate Dracula's tomb and drive a stake through his heart. These three quests take place in sequential time periods. The first is that of Bartholomew Rossi, an academic who has stumbled onto manuscripts that would indicate that Dracula, a medieval Romanian tyrant, is still alive and tormenting anyone who happens upon his trail. Then Rossi suddenly vanishes, and his protégé, Paul, sets out to find him and guesses correctly that Dracula has something to do with Rossi's disappearance. Before Paul sets out for Eastern Europe, he meets a young woman, Helen, who claims to be Rossi's daughter. Then around 18 years later, Paul abandons his teenage daughter at a conference at Oxford University, because something has suddenly come up. A handsome student named Barley suspends his studies at Oxford to go to France with the daughter to find her father. Yes, everyone is dashing off to parts unknown, and it's a little confusing, especially since voluminous letters consume most of the book. As with many lengthy adventure tales, the culmination of the quest(s) is somewhat anti-climactic. Despite painstakingly detailed itineraries and descriptions of translated parchment documents, there's a lot here that defies reality, besides the obvious vampire lore. Paul and Helen miraculously weasel their way into communist bloc countries and somehow avoid spending the rest of their lives in a dark prison for grave-robbing. Then there are numerous convenient coincidences, where various vampire hunters cross paths serendipitously. Plus, the fact that everyone the world over believes vampires exist puts this book solidly in the realm of fantasy. And, coming in at over 600 pages, it needs to be really good fantasy in order to keep me entertained, and it falls short. Anne Rice still reigns in the vampire department.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

THE STONE DIARIES by Carol Shields

Daisy Goodwill's story is that of a conventional life, marked by some rather unusual events. The narration vacillates between first- and third-person, but the voice is mainly Daisy's, beginning with her obese mother's death in bearing Daisy in 1905 in rural Manitoba. Daisy's stonecutter father hands the infant off to a neighbor woman, Clarentine Flett, who leaves her husband to live with her grown son Barker, a botany professor. When Mrs. Flett dies suddenly, Barker is left in somewhat of a pickle. Since it would be unseemly for him to remain the guardian of a 12-year-old girl, Daisy's father Cuyler comes to collect her on his way to a better job in Bloomington, Indiana. His success there enables Daisy to marry a rich ne'er-do-well, but, alas, he jumps/falls from their hotel window during the honeymoon without ever consummating the marriage. (Homosexuality is assumed but never mentioned.) Daisy is now somewhat of a pariah as far as her marital prospects and decides to make a long trip, partly precipitated by her father's remarrying. The most anticipated stop in her journey is a visit to "Uncle" Barker, at least 20 years her senior, with whom she has kept a steady, though uninformative, correspondence. The book covers Daisy's entire life and is sort of a faux biography, complete with family tree and photos, the more recent of which are actually the author's children. I found these touches to be sort of playful on the author's part. As Daisy later goes on sort of a genealogical quest, I was bewildered that she never manifests any curiosity about her mother. As with real lives, some secrets are revealed along the way, and some remain buried when the one who harbors them dies.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


Life is moving along swimmingly for an extended farm family in Iowa in 1979, until the patriarch, Larry Cook, decides to sign his 1000 acres over to his three daughters. Rose and Ginny both live on the land with their husbands, but Caroline is an attorney who balks at the plan and thus loses her share. It's unclear, really, why Larry suddenly decides to make this bequest, but afterward he starts behaving very strangely. Is it dementia, regret, revenge, or just orneriness? He's certainly become somewhat unmoored and hasn't gotten any nicer. Ginny and her husband Ty were formerly the slavish favored pair, but Rose's spunk has diminished Ginny's fear and bolstered her self-confidence. As Ginny begins to stop looking the other way when their father insults them and behaves like a spoiled child, Ty becomes uneasy, because Ginny is his link to the land and their livelihood. Ginny's sudden about-face is also partly inspired by Jess, a draft dodger who has recently returned from Canada, thanks to Jimmy Carter's amnesty. There's a lot of inner turmoil bubbling to the surface for all of these characters but especially for Ginny, who has suppressed her hurt and anger for so long that she has repressed key events, to the point that she questions her sister's veracity. This uncertainty, along with some not-so-friendly sisterly competition, causes Ginny to become unhinged and do some pretty radical stuff. Despite the seriousness of all this, there is one very funny scene near the beginning where a neighbor's parrot shouts some commands, such as "sit" and "roll over," sending the dogs into an obedient frenzy. My favorite sentiment, though, is at the end, when Ginny observes that the burden of having to wait and see what's going to happen has been lifted, but this anticipation is what motivates us readers to keep flipping the pages.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU by Jonathan Tropper

I can see how this book, alternately funny and poignant, would be a good candidate for a movie, but it's an even better novel. Judd Foxman and his three siblings, along with their stiletto-wearing, breast-enhanced mother, are sitting shiva for their recently deceased father. This means that the five of them, plus their families, will be spending the next week in the same house. Judd and his beloved wife, Jen, however, have separated, after Judd discovered her in their bed with his boss. Judd, nursing an acutely broken heart, is somewhat lost after the demise of his marriage, but his brothers are not any better off. His older brother Paul harbors a mountain of pent-up resentment against Judd, blaming him for an unfortunate encounter with a dog, which destroyed Paul's plans for a professional baseball career. The youngest brother Phil is basically a screw-up that delivers outrageous fabrications about his current occupation to anyone who asks. Wendy, their sister, manages to steer clear of most of the mayhem, but there is so much emotion that needs to be aired, particularly between Judd and Paul, that plenty of sparks fly. Scattered among the fistfights and slamming doors are some very funny, memorable moments, including some potty humor, some hilarious banter with children in which the word "donkey" is substituted for the word "ass," and a pot smoking scene in the synagogue. Judd occasionally throws out some bitterly honest remarks that both shock and amuse, and almost every night he has nightmares of having an artificial leg. Then one night he dreams that his father removes the prosthetic to reveal a perfectly uninjured leg. My guess is that this dream symbolizes how broken his life is and that this family reunion in honor of his father somehow has the potential to help him restore order. Phil's current girlfriend, Tracy—an older woman and Phil's former shrink—offers Judd some very sage advice that we can only hope he has the good sense to follow.
Amazon: 4 stars (190 reviews)
Barnes & Noble: 4 stars (73 reviews)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

SEA OF POPPIES by Amitav Ghosh

My reading of this book was a long and arduous task, partly due to the zillions of foreign and slang words. (There's a dictionary at the back, but almost all of the words I looked up were not there.) The story has potential, with a group of diverse characters having been thrown together in one place, like Bel Canto. In this case, the place is the Ibis, a ship sailing from Calcutta to Mauritius in the early 1800s. However, the ship doesn't sail until about three-quarters of the way through the book, giving us a chance to become well acquainted with the main characters before the debarkation. Deeti is married to an opium addict, and Kalua is a cart driver who helps Deeti escape her evil in-laws after her husband dies. Neel is an aristocrat on the brink of bankruptcy who can't fathom the lengths to which his creditor will go to acquire his lands. Pauline is the orphaned daughter of a botanist, whose childhood friend Jodu has secured a position as a crew member on the Ibis. The American Zachary Reid, whose mother was a quadroon freedwoman, is the second mate of the Ibis, and there's a budding love story between him and Pauline. For reasons unrelated to her feelings for Zachary, Pauline will stop at nothing to somehow join this voyage. Perhaps the most exasperating aspect of this book is that it is intended as the first episode in a trilogy. As such, the ending is a teaser that left me wondering why I had bothered, because I'm not sure I can wade through two more books like it. The story does transport the reader to another place and time, but it progresses at a snail's pace, evocative of the effect of opium, India's cash crop of the day, at least until its export to China is banned by the government. The theme that seems to pervade the book is the injustice of not only the caste system but racial prejudice in general, and how power atop the perceived hierarchy is used to keep those at the lower rungs of the ladder in their place. There's an interesting reverse-discrimination scene near the end where the lowlife 2nd mate, Mr. Crowle, drops his intense dislike for Zachary and tries to recruit him for a coup, when he finds that Zachary has African blood. Also, who knew that "canvas," originally woven from hemp to make sails, is a derivation of the word "cannabis"?
Amazon: 4 stars (105 reviews)
Barnes & Noble: 3.5 stars (31 reviews)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

INVISIBLE SISTERS by Jessica Handler

I could never write a memoir because, for one thing, I had a relatively normal childhood, and, for another, I didn't keep a journal. However, Jessica Handler did keep a journal and had a very difficult childhood, being the "well" sister. I viewed this book as sort of a memorial to her two younger siblings, Sarah and Susie, who had very different but ultimately fatal diseases. The impact of this tragic coincidence on a family is almost unimaginable, and Jessica Handler documents her family's lives in a rather scattered manner, something like an out-of-order scrapbook. I can't say that this jumbling of events made the book hard to follow, since it's really a very fast read. Thank heavens, because I didn't really want to spend too much time in this household. It's not surprising that young Jessica used drugs and toxic friendships as her escapes from survivor's guilt and the widening chasm between her parents. I was also glad that this book was not as tear-inducing as I thought it would be, since the tone is really rather matter-of-fact. Handler's father is a very intriguing figure, a labor union attorney who moved his family to Atlanta in the 1960s and who had his own demons to face as he struggled to be the head of a family whose members were dying. Her mother appears to be rock solid through all the tragedy, but the failure on the part of both parents to encourage expressions of grief was ultimately destructive to their family dynamic. I'm guessing that pouring out her memories on paper was cathartic for the author, and in the interview in the back of the book she says that she was surprised at how much she laughed while writing it. Needless to say, she doesn't share enough of this humor with the reader. Her husband also has a very bizarre story to tell, and their complicated histories draw them together.
Amazon: 4.5 stars (19 reviews)
Barnes & Noble: 4 stars (3 reviews)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

THE GLASS ROOM by Simon Mawer

This was my first ebook, and how appropriate that it's about an ultra-modern house. Viktor Landauer is a wealthy Czechoslovakian car manufacturer, about to start a family with his wife Liesel, just before WWII. They contract with an unconventional architect to build a house whose main living space is walled by glass. Viktor is a Jew and leads his family on a journey that culminates in the U.S. What's unusual about this story is that Viktor's mistress, Kata, herself a Jewish refugee, comes to live with the family as their nanny. Thus we have an awkward threesome, but this does not make for a tawdry core to the novel. In fact, the house is really the main character, as we follow its various purposes—a laboratory, a dance studio, a museum. Liesel's close friend Hana, whose husband Oskar is also a Jew, is witness to these transformations of the house, and, in my mind, is the most interesting person in the book. She has two great loves, Liesel and Oskar, and sells herself to a Nazi scientist in an effort to save her husband. Despite the turmoil and tragedy of the times, this book never really grabbed me emotionally. And certainly the house doesn't give off any warm and fuzzy vibes. The most fascinating subplot was that of the interim in which the house serves as a research facility, whose purpose is to isolate some distinguishing physical characteristic that would identify Jews unequivocally. Needless to say, no amount of measuring body parts or blood work provides the telltale sign. What is odd about this endeavor is that there's intermarriage, even among the main characters, so that someone who is of purely Jewish descent is somewhat rare, especially since those with the means to do so have fled the country. Even the head scientist himself has a recessive trait that implies that he may have had a Jewish ancestor. Ironically, due to this gene's tragic impact on his family, he is especially motivated to eradicate the Jews.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

THE LACUNA by Barbara Kingsolver

I love the way Kingsolver inserts her protagonist into the lives of real people in this book. It's not exactly historical fiction, in my opinion, since the main character is fictional, yet real events are more than just a backdrop. A lacuna is a gap or a hole, and Harrison Shepherd leads a fractured life. His father is American, but his Mexican mother follows her lover to Mexico in 1929, and young Harrison is obliged to follow. Then he begins doing odd jobs for the artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, who later offer asylum to Leon Trotsky, the Russian leader who is a target of Stalin's henchmen. Shepherd is the consummate observer, whose diary entries constitute a large portion of the book. After Trotsky's murder, Shepherd flees to the U.S., where he eventually settles in Asheville and writes two very popular novels about the Aztecs and their conflicts with the Spaniards. Then McCarthyism rides in on the heels of WWII, and guess what? Shepherd's Mexican artist friends were communists, and even his novels come under the microscope as possibly being subversive. Kingsolver is not bashful about making some political and social statements here. I'm reminded of the Patriot Act and other signs of paranoia after 9/11. A quote from one of Shepherd's novels in which a soldier describes a leader as an "empty sack" (another lacuna, so to speak) leads to Shepherd's being deemed "un-American." So much for freedom of speech, and fiction being treated as fiction. One of my favorite of Shepherd's musings is when he ponders the possibility of allowing his stenographer, Violet Brown, to move in with him when her rent is increased. He is gay, though closeted, but knows that it would be inappropriate in that day and time. In Mexico, on the other hand, a household can be an amalgamation of unrelated people, and everyone sees it as a perfectly reasonable and practical choice. Kingsolver also makes the point that Mexicans are drawn in two directions because of their mixed blood but tend to downplay their Aztec or Mayan lineage, perhaps because the Spaniards were the victors. I think that, besides giving us a good story, perhaps Kingsolver is warning us that civilization is not necessarily making strides in a more enlightened direction, as we seem doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

SAMMY'S HILL by Kristin Gore

This is the second book I've read recently that reviewers compared to Bridget Jones's Diary. This one is by Al Gore's daughter and takes place in the familiar (to her) surroundings of our nation's capital. Like Diary, there are a bunch of lewd, hilarious emails, including one that goes awry when Sammy, our heroine, accidentally clicks the Reply All button. Isn't that the scenario we're all a little nervous about in the electronic age—our gossip reaching unintended audiences? Despite that incident, Sammy has a little more common sense than Bridget, but she makes some horrendous choices in men and in pet stores. She's also a little accident-prone, reminding me of another funny heroine, Stephanie Plum, from Janet Evanovich's novels. In Sammy's case, this trait perhaps explains her constant musing on how she would cope with certain disabilities. In actuality, it appears that she should focus more on spin control for her various faux pas, but then again, the consequences seem to slide off fairly easily. There are lots of thinly veiled references to real people in Washington, and these just add to the fun. The best, though, is the typo she makes in an email at the end of the novel. It's a riot, and I can't wait to read the next installment.


This book was the perfect antidote after having been weighed down by some serious non-fiction. Jane Rosenal is a single thirty-something whose best asset is her wit, and the book is full of LOL quips. Although it seems to invite comparisons to Bridget Jones's Diary, this is not a diary, and it has a few sad events as well. In fact, there's a middle chapter that's narrated by a neighbor of Jane's aunt that seems to be not even tangentially tied to the rest of the book, and I didn't quite get that. Back to Jane. We witness her relationships with her family, her boss, and her various lovers, especially Archie, who's at least 20 years older, and who serves as sort of a mentor, teaching her to trust her instincts where work is concerned. Now if only she had trusted her instincts with regard to him! I thoroughly enjoyed the author's breezy style, which, in times of sadness, seemed a little inappropriate, but frankly, I'd prefer that to tear-inducing heavy-handedness. One unfortunate consequence, though, is that the story is not particularly memorable, except for the ending. Here Jane becomes more Bridget Jones-y, as she starts listening to the voices from a book that advises playing hard to get and resisting the urge to be funny. Unfortunately, Jane decides to apply this advice when she finally meets a guy who appreciates her for who she is, with near-disastrous results.


I saw the movie years ago, so that this novel composed of diary entries was fresh and hilarious. Bridget is obsessed with her vices—food, alcohol and cigarettes. She's a procrastinator who tends to bite off more than she can chew and a singleton whose family and "Smug Married" friends badger her about her unmarried status. Her greatest asset is her wit, though, and that is what sustains her. Her email repartee with her slimy but handsome boss regarding her uber-short spandex skirt is side-splittingly funny. The other possible man in her life is Mark Darcy, a very successful lawyer who seems a little too buttoned up for Bridget's tastes. Scattered among her neurotic quests for a boyfriend, her job blunders and dinner party fiascos are sources of embarrassment that somehow morph into successes. On the periphery is the drama playing out with her parents, who separate when her mother yields to her inner cougar tendencies. This is somewhat of an unnecessary distraction, as Bridget's foibles are more entertaining, from trying to program her VCR to assessing the feng shui of her apartment.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Louisa and Clem (short for Clement) are sisters who are just too different to be really close. Louisa is an art critic, and Clem is a wildlife conservationist. We follow their adult lives for 25 years via alternating narrators to get a sense of who they are. Clem is more vivacious and attractive than her older sister, and her adventures have led to accidents on at least three occasions where her parents have had to bear the trauma of notifications by the police. Ultimately, a life-changing event occurs in each sister's life. For Louisa, it is breast cancer, which renders her unable to bear children. For Clem, it is the discovery that a grizzly cub has a heart defect. There are two schools of thought among Clem's colleagues. One faction believes that we should let nature run its course. After all, even if cardiac surgery is successful, the bear will pass the defect on to his progeny. Clem, on the other hand, can't bear to see the cub fall farther and farther behind in his development until he attracts the attention of some other predator. The outcome of this dilemma is just as devastating to Clem as cancer is to Louisa. I can't really put my finger on why I enjoyed this book so much, but I had pretty much the same reaction to Three Junes. Certainly, the writing is sublime, but also the arrival and departure of myriad friends and lovers—no two alike—and the mortifying quips tossed out by the sisters' domineering mother keep things rolling. The gimmick Glass uses here is quite effective as well. The book consists of seemingly incomplete snippets, separated in time by months or years, whose outcomes are revealed later in an indirect fashion, as though we already knew what had happened during the gaps. It's sort of like watching a soap opera where you've missed a few episodes that become less and less critical.


It took me a long time to read this book. The characters just didn't leap off the page as they did in the two other Julia Glass novels that I've read. Sometimes it seems that an author who wins a big book award then feels s/he has a license to give us a really long book. And some books, even though they're long, I don't want them to end. This was not one of those. There were a lot of interwoven plot lines, some of which I found to be somewhat sleep-inducing, and when I got buried in one of those, I had to give up for the night. The main and most interesting plot line is that of Greenie and her husband Alan, New Yorkers with a small child named George. Alan counsels couples, and Greenie owns a bakery but has been offered a job as the chef for the governor of New Mexico. Since her marriage is not in a good place at the moment anyway, Greenie and young George head to Santa Fe. This estrangement allows both parties to follow up on some relationships from their youth. Less compelling are the stories of Walter, a gay restaurateur, and Saga, a slightly brain-damaged young woman who helps find homes for abandoned pets. Actually, the least enjoyable plot line was that of Walter's teenage nephew Scott, who has been sent to live with and work for Walter. His misbehavior is annoying and frustrating, and I kept waiting for Walter to give him the boot. In fact, Walter generally worries that he's overreacting, and I'm constantly thinking he's too much of a softie. It's not that I didn't enjoy this book; it's just that the author's other two are so much better.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

THE ECHO MAKER by Richard Powers

I've read some really good books lately, but this one is in a class by itself. Mark Schluter rolls his truck on a dark rural road in Nebraska and barely survives. As he starts to regain his faculties, one major problem remains: he thinks his sister Karin is an imposter. Her anguish drives her to seek out Gerald Weber, a celebrity neurologist/author. Also, Karin finds a mysterious note at Mark's bedside, and Mark becomes obsessed with finding its author. Then there's Barbara, the nurse's aide who bonds with Mark, attracts Weber and has an understanding of things way beyond the realm of her profession. There are several other plot lines surrounding the main Mark/Karin story, but they all feel intertwined and are equally compelling, so that I never felt myself wishing to get back to a different storyline. Weber has issues of his own, as he grapples with his conscience, after his latest book receives reviews accusing him of everything from being merely anecdotal to using other people's brain malfunctions for his own personal gain. Then there's the environmental controversy over the water supply for sandhill cranes who migrate through the area. Most intriguing of all, though, are the various anecdotes that Weber supplies about the various neurological disorders he's encountered and how we're really all at the mercy of the brain's intricate behavior. It doesn't take much of a misfire to render us weirdly incompetent. Our actions and emotions are all ruled by our brains, so that must be where our soul is, right? This question permeates the book and will forever intrigue me.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Nothing makes me yearn for a good beach read like a heavy dose of non-fiction. More informative than enjoyable, this book is about corruption and civil rights in coastal McIntosh County, Georgia, in the 70s. Since it's a true story, I hesitate to use the word "characters," but the two main ones are white sheriff Tom Poppell and black resident Thurnell Alston. Neither is all good or all bad, and certainly the shades of gray are an improvement over some of the fiction I've read lately. Poppell is trying to keep the future at bay by denying the blacks an opportunity to hold any real public office, to serve on a jury, or to occupy white-collar jobs. He's also the force behind blatant criminal activity, as roadside stands routinely hoodwink travelers into ponying up their entire vacation stash and more in rigged games of chance. On the other hand, he looks the other way whenever a semi spills its cargo in a crash, allowing the poor black families to pillage the shoes, dry wall, or whatever. Alston, a boilermaker on disability, becomes the spokesperson for the disenfranchised black population, but he's no saint and eventually degenerates into a flawed figurehead. Two unfortunate events define his later life, and he sinks even further, although there appears to be some sliver of hope for redemption at the end. The author and her husband both worked for the Georgia Legal Services Program during the time that GLSP assisted the blacks in McIntosh County in their quest to achieve representation. Greene's participation in that effort obviously afforded her the opportunity to see both the good and the shortcomings of the people on whose behalf GLSP filed suit. This book is definitely not a celebration of victory but is a stark look at an ongoing struggle for self-respect and equality.


My husband and I have bicycled all over the southern part of Georgia, so that I particularly enjoyed revisiting the town of Baxley through this book and seeing it through the eyes of someone who grew up there. Janisse Ray's family owned a junkyard, and that seems somewhat incongruous in a book whose title includes the word "ecology." Oddly enough, the junkyard was a giant recycling zone of sorts, where discarded parts could be resurrected in other vehicles. It's a stretch, but I get it. The author alternates chapters about her childhood with observations on the deforestation and diminishing wildlife populations in the area. Her focus is largely on the longleaf pine, which was all but eliminated from the planet by construction, turpentine production and wood-burning locomotives. There's also a heartbreaking story about a captured gopher tortoise that will forever haunt me. Although, she was well-loved, well-fed, and well-educated, Ms. Ray did not have an easy life, having to dress and behave in accordance with her family's apostolic religious beliefs. Her family stories are mostly upbeat, though, except for that of the whipping her father doles out to all the children for witnessing an episode of animal cruelty without making an effort to stop it. Also, my husband and I obsessed for several hours over a math problem that appears in the book without its solution. Only in my household….

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

LITTLE BEE by Chris Cleave

I've recently read T.C. Boyle's Tortilla Curtain, which dealt with the heartbreaking, backbreaking lives of illegal immigrants in the U.S. The tension and turmoil leap off the page in that book, but I found Little Bee a disappointment. Yes, the true grit of the novel unfolds little by little, but the plot failed to engage me for some reason. The accolades on the back indicate that it's supposed to be witty, but I missed the wit somehow and found it to be one of the most depressing books ever. Sixteen-year-old Little Bee, along with several other women, is released without immigration papers from a detention center in London. She is a refugee from Nigeria, where all of her family members were murdered for the oil deposits in their village. She makes her way to the home of Andrew O'Rourke and his wife Sarah, whom she met on a beach in Nigeria. (The beach encounter is the crux of the story and not fully revealed until at least midway through the book.) She appears at Sarah's door on the day of Andrew's funeral, after he has committed suicide, ostensibly from anguish after Little Bee phoned that she was on her way to his house. What bothered me here were how many asinine decisions the characters made, which had extremely tragic consequences. Why would Sarah's married lover, Laurence, show up on her doorstep the day of Sarah's husband's funeral? Why would she let him stay? Why would he ask Little Bee, who is in danger of being deported, to make the call to the police when Sarah's son Charlie goes missing? (OK, maybe he had an ulterior motive here.) Why would you allow your 4-year-old to wear a Batman outfit 24/7 for months, complete with full face mask, until you finally had to buy a second costume so that the other could be laundered? This is all head-scratchingly absurd. I will say this for Charlie in the Batman outfit. There's obviously a metaphor woven throughout the story about his being a superhero, but it didn't occur to me until the end that it also hides the (white) color of his skin.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist are back but not together. Let's face it. Blomkvist is a cad, and Lisbeth is perplexed to realize that she's in love with him. She travels for a year and then goes into hiding. She becomes even more scarce when her fingerprints are found on a murder weapon. We know, of course, never to count her out, as she's the weirdest heroine since Pippi Longstocking, another Swede whose name keeps popping up. This series ranks right up there with Harry Potter, just as improbable, but more adult. I enjoyed this book even more than the The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, partly because the characters were a little easier to keep track of, but mostly because it's just a better story—an action-packed murder mystery with Lisbeth and her friends Miriam and Paolo kicking some butt. As the cops set their sights on Lisbeth as a suspect, Blomkvist launches his own investigation, not just to exonerate Lisbeth, but also to find the real killers of his two colleagues Mia and Dag. He also knows that there are people in high places with motives, since they were about to be exposed for sex trafficking. Along the way we discover some details of Lisbeth's past, including why she was declared incompetent by the courts and assigned to that scumbag guardian Bjurman. I was on the edge of my seat during the finale, with Blomkvist to the rescue, periodically checking his watch, as his train is delayed. Then he gets lost, becoming more harried and squandering precious minutes. There are several loose ends that I'm looking forward to seeing tidied up in the third book, beyond just the bad guys getting their due. I'm particularly interested to see what happens with Erika Berger, Blomkvist's married lover and business partner, as she plans to accept an editor-in-chief job at another magazine. Will this cause a rift and free up Blomkvist to have a real relationship with Lisbeth? Why am I rooting for 20-something and a 40-something to get together?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

THE REAL McCOY by Darin Strauss

The first thing that struck me about this book is the tone. It immediately brought to mind an old-time radio announcer—pitch-perfect for this fictionalized saga of Kid McCoy, a scrawny prizefighter from the late 1800s and early 1900s. These are pre-radio times, though, and the details of the time and place transport the reader from dreary small-town Indiana to backstreet St. Louis to the seediest areas of New York and beyond. The Kid's real name is Virgil Selby, but he takes the name McCoy from another boxer who dies from injuries incurred in a fight. The "new" McCoy is more colorful than Chang and Eng in Strauss's earlier book, as he's a flimflam artist on the side. (I love that word, and this book is full of others that evoke the era. I found myself singing "Mack the Knife" while reading it, because the setting was so tawdry—another good word.) In fact, the cons that he performs with his fat Chinese mentor, Johnnie Gold, are some of the most entertaining scenes in the book. The irony is that the term "the real McCoy" may have referred to Kid McCoy, but in the book his life is a complete sham; he's a liar and a bigamist and even obtains his welterweight title by scamming his opponent. Likeable he is not, but I couldn't help hoping that he would eventually straighten himself out so that he could hang on to his true love, Susan Fields. As in Chang and Eng, Strauss embellishes the lives of historical characters and leaves us wondering what's true and what's not. In this case, I think that very little is true, but who cares?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A RELIABLE WIFE by Robert Goolrick

A mail-order bride steps off the train in Wisconsin in 1907, and the treachery has already begun. Catherine is more beautiful than the photo of a plain friend that she sent to her husband-to-be. Ralph Truitt would have preferred a woman that would not have awakened his sexual desires. At first, Catherine sees Ralph strictly as a means to an end, but an accident on the way home from the train station changes their attitudes and the development of their relationship. For some reason not totally explained, Ralph sends Catherine to St. Louis to retrieve Ralph's long lost son whose father is probably not Ralph at all and who is leading the same sort of dissolute life that Ralph led in his youth. Catherine's inner conflict about who she is and what she wants is the heart of the novel. One woman in my book club described this book as lascivious, and I can't disagree with that assessment, although the lust is largely more thought than action. The melodrama is pretty engrossing and somewhat unpredictable, though not necessarily original, with a midway surprise that I won't reveal. The plot could be compressed into about 5 sentences, so there's a lot of verbiage here, but it paints a sumptuous picture. The descriptions of gardens, furnishings, fashions, the winter landscape, the streets of St. Louis and the people that inhabit these scenes are vivid, and the food descriptions are mouth-watering.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010


I read an interview with T.C. Boyle in which he said that since he gets to play God with his characters, he is going to make them suffer. And suffer they do in The Tortilla Curtain. Two men from completely different walks of life are the main characters whose paths collide, literally. Delaney, an outdoor writer, accidentally hits Cándido, an out-of-work Mexican, with his Acura. Cándido and his pregnant wife América are living in a canyon near Delaney's L.A. subdivision with no shelter and little chance of earning a living. Every time Cándido and América start to accumulate almost enough money to make a deposit on an apartment, something dreadful happens to wipe them out, often at the hands of their fellow Mexicans. Delaney considers himself to be liberally minded and is incensed at his neighbors' proposal to construct a wall around their subdivision to keep out trespassers. Delaney, although a nature-lover, saves his ire for the coyotes, after they manage to scale a chainlink fence to abscond with both of the family dogs. Little by little, though, after his car is stolen, Delaney begins to unravel and lose patience with the Mexicans also. A certain amount of mistaken identity and stereotyping on the part of both Delaney and Cándido contribute to their conflict. The book reminded me somewhat of the movie Crash, since both the book and the movie take the position that most everyone can become racist under certain circumstances.

CARAMELO by Sandra Cisneros

Celaya, Lala for short, born in Chicago to a family with 6 sons, narrates this quasi-autobiographical novel that spans several generations of her Mexican heritage. My biggest difficulty was distinguishing the parents from the grandparents from the great-grandparents. Certainly one character stands out, and that is Lala's paternal grandmother, Soledad, known as The Awful Grandmother, who assists Lala in the chronicling of her family's history. There is definitely bad blood between Soledad and Lala's mother, Zoila, who has stolen Soledad's oldest and favorite son. Lala's father and his two brothers are upholsterers who leave their jobs every summer to make the trek to Mexico City to visit their parents. The pivotal event is a side trip to Acapulco. The book opens with a photo made in Acapulco and closes with a revelation that The Awful Grandmother made to Zoila during a whispered conversation on that trip. When The Awful Grandmother moves in with Lala's large, boisterous family after The Little Grandfather dies, the feud heightens, and the family moves to San Antonio. Lala becomes increasingly restless as a teenager and has to fend off harassment from schoolmates. By this time, The Awful Grandmother is providing solace and advice from the grave and helping Lala to accept her father's counsel that family, not friends, will come to your aid when you're in trouble.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A GATE AT THE STAIRS by Lorrie Moore

This book covers a year in the life of college student Tassie Keltjin. When it opens, she is searching for a job in childcare and interviews with countless pregnant women. She lands a position with Sarah who, along with her husband Edward, is planning to adopt. Tassie finds herself identifying with the birth mothers rather than her employer when she accompanies Sarah on interviews arranged by the adoption agency. These awkward interviews echo Tassie's own job interviews, and Sarah finally wins approval from the mother of a biracial toddler currently in foster care. Tassie thrives in her role as Emmie's caregiver and surrogate mother, until two revelations, one from Tassie's boyfriend and one from Sarah, turn Tassie's life upside down. More tragedy ensues, and frankly it's a lot for someone so young to have to bear. Tassie does not come across as a particularly strong person, but she manages to strike just the right note in a lot of uncomfortable situations, unlike Sarah who, despite owning a trendy restaurant, is the master of the faux pas. Tassie's college curriculum is frivolous, including a course on war movie soundtracks and one in wine tasting, although Tassie is not of legal drinking age. The author seems to be poking fun at or criticizing higher education, but I'm not sure which. What I really liked, though, was the use of language. Moore includes some nifty songs written by Tassie and her roommate to help heal their broken hearts and snippets of absurd conversations that Tassie overhears among Sarah, Edward, and other parents of adopted biracial children. The author often uses nouns, like "petal," as verbs, maybe not as effectively as Hemingway, who got my attention when he used "candelabra" as a verb. Moore draws our attention to bumper stickers and messages emblazoned on t-shirts, as well as Tassie's focus on the prefix "quasi" or Sarah's explanation of how the word "gate" appended to a word came to indicate a scandal and perhaps a cover-up. I've puzzled over the title, especially as it relates to that conversation, but the skeletons in these characters' closets embody more disturbing offenses than wiretapping.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


The narrator is top high school student Margaret Birch, who lives with her mother Sophia and grandmother Charlie Kate in a small town in North Carolina in 1940. Charlie Kate is the well-read town medic with no formal training but a whole lot of experience who upstages the doctors from time to time. Margaret can't be persuaded to choose a college, because she loves assisting her grandmother on house calls too much to leave home. Charlie Kate is Margaret's main adviser and confidante. Sophia is a good mother, but she lacks Charlie Kate's wisdom when it comes to unconventional Margaret, who shows no interest in boys, clothes, or cosmetics. Both Sophia and Charlie Kate made bad choices in husbands who strayed and are now out of the picture. Margaret constantly laments that she wasn't sired by the doctor who Charlie Kate chose as a suitable mate for Sophia but whom both parties rejected. My favorite section of the book is where Margaret is volunteering at a hospital and takes on the task of reading and writing letters for wounded soldiers. Appalled at what they dictate, as well as a screwy Dear John letter that one receives, she and her grandmother fabricate their own letters to send home for these men, with mixed results. These three strong, smart women make this book an uplifting delight from beginning to end.

IF I TOLD YOU ONCE by Judy Budnitz

The somewhat fanciful nature of the violent events in this book serves to soften the blows. It's a story of four generations of women, starting with Ilana. She grows up in an unnamed country (eastern European, according to the book jacket) and emigrates to the U.S. before WWII. Her life reads like a series of dark fairy tales. Her daughter Sashie discounts her mother's stories as total fabrications, reaching her own erroneous conclusions about her mother's history. Given how Sashie chooses her husband and the circumstances of his disappearance, I don't see how she could doubt the occurrences of her mother's life; they're all equally absurd. Sashie's daughter Mara is unbalanced, especially in her attachment to her brother Jonathan. Who wouldn't live in a fantasy world with her lineage? Finally, there's Jonathan's illegitimate daughter Naomi, whose mother dies from burn injuries. Naomi, raised by the other 3 women, comes full circle by connecting mainly with her great-grandmother Ilana. The author quickly disposes of husbands, sons, and brothers, who are secondary characters at best but constant objects of adoration by the women.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

THE COAL TATTOO by Silas House

There are a lot of books out there about sisters who are opposites in personality. (In Her Shoes comes to mind.) In other words, this struck me as sort of a tired premise. Easter is the older sister to whom maturity came early with the responsibility for raising her vivacious younger sibling, Anneth. There's also an older brother, Gabe, who doesn't really figure into the story at all. The action takes place in a coal mining town in Kentucky. Easter was a good student and had college aspirations until she became a surrogate parent, although, frankly, her grammar indicates that English was not her best subject. Anneth predictably marries and abandons a couple of husbands before finding true love with a younger man on his way to Vietnam. What annoyed me the most was how Easter continues to cling to Anneth, even after Anneth betrays her time and again. Somehow Anneth never really has to suffer the consequences of her selfishness and unreliability. Easter, on the other hand, sinks into an emotional abyss after her baby is stillborn. I suppose, though, that Easter's character is such that she has to forgive in order to recover and survive.


I expected this book to be a mellow story of Appalachia, and it was, but it was also a multi-generational tale with some suspense thrown in for good measure. The author was very good at whetting my appetite for what was going to happen next in one story line and then switching to events 200+ years earlier. Malcolm McCourry, by his own account, lives four distinct lives. Seamen seize him away from his first life on Islay, off the coast of Scotland, when he is nine years old, and he voyages to America, fulfilling an early prophecy that "the sea will take him." His tale alternates with that of his modern-day progeny, John Walker, a retired lawyer, and his estranged daughter Lark, who is making her name as a singer. The glue between the generations is a song called "The Rowan Stave" about a shepherdess receiving a magic stone in a graveyard. The main theme of the song, however, is that our journeys change us. Certainly this is the case with Malcolm, who brought the song from Scotland, and later with Lark, who is trying to resurrect it for her next album. Other songs play a role in the novel, including one that helps identify a murderer, but not as much as I expected. The supernatural actually is a larger player, with several benevolent ghosts and a family curse against the firstborn child, endured by Lark but seeming to be somewhat of her own making. There's actually another modern-day story line, that of Joe LeDonne, who's doing some soul searching on a backpacking trip. Certain events raise the possibility that his story is perhaps ten years later than Lark's, and McCrumb leaves us guessing about this timeline until the end.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


The parallel story lines here are only 11 years apart, 1941 and 1952, and both take place in Hong Kong, so that there are characters who span both story lines. The primary such character is Will Truesdale, who acquired a limp during the war, but, more importantly, has gained a dour disposition. In the later story line, he strikes up an affair with Claire, who, along with her husband Martin, is a recent transplant to Hong Kong. The most colorful character is Trudy Liang, half Portuguese and half Chinese, who, before the Japanese occupation, was expected to marry Will. However, Trudy is an opportunist, as are many of the survivors, getting in bed, literally, with the Japanese just to survive. The predominant theme seems to be betrayal. Claire betrays her husband, Trudy betrays Will, and friends and family throw one another under the bus if they think it will improve their chances. Trudy makes the observation that most of the Europeans in Hong Kong prior to WWII are reluctant to leave, because their creature comforts far surpass what they could achieve in their home countries. The partying is supplanted almost overnight, though, by famine, filth, imprisonment, violence and destruction when the Japanese take over. These people had choices but stayed put and paid the price with loss of self-respect, at the very least. Claire, who teaches piano to the daughter of a well-to-do Chinese couple with dark secrets of their own, becomes the confessor of several guilt-ridden ex-pats and becomes as drawn to the city as those who should have left when they could. Most of the characters are too self-serving to be likeable, and The Distant Land of My Father (PattisPages, Dec. 2008) observes a similar setting in a more captivating way.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

THE THIRTEENTH TALE by Diane Setterfield

In this novel, Vida Winter, a hugely popular English writer, has commissioned Margaret Lea to write her biography. Vida's story quickly overshadows Margaret's, but there is one key aspect of Margaret's life that pervades her reaction to Vida's tale. Margaret has discovered that she had a twin whose death shortly after her birth has left Margaret's mother too bereaved to love her remaining daughter. In fact, Vida hooks Margaret into the job by suggesting that hers, too, is a story of twins. Vida's real name is Adeline March, and the fate of her twin, Emmeline, is unknown for most of the novel. The girls' mother dies in a mental institution, and the twins show signs of being afflicted as well, or maybe their lack of parenting has just made them wild. Setterfield has spun a really good yarn here, complete with a foundling, a fire, a murder made to look like an accident, possible ghosts, and a twist. The title stems from the fact that Vida's first short story collection was supposed to have included 13 stories, but the collection's title had to be changed because it was published with only twelve. The thirteenth is obviously her own personal story, which is even more unbelievable than the preposterous stuff she routinely doles out to interviewers. The only thing really lacking is romance, at least of the conventional kind, and the author tosses in a bit of that as sort of an unnecessary afterthought at the end.

BEE SEASON by Myla Goldberg

This story focuses entirely on a Jewish family of four that have managed to distance themselves from one another. Daughter Eliza, a fifth-grader and unexceptional student, has miraculously won the school spelling bee. In normal families, a jubilant child would report this success to proud parents immediately, and congratulations would ensue. However, Eliza reports the event by slipping an envelope under her stay-at-home dad's study door. The note gets buried under Saul's assorted paperwork, and Eliza has to frantically engage her 16-year-old brother Aaron to drive her to the district bee. Mom Miriam is an attorney with a secret life as a kleptomaniac, stealing items that she feels are a part of her. Aaron develops a secret life of his own, joining the Hare Kirshnas, as his father becomes totally absorbed in coaching Eliza to spelling nirvana via mystic Kabbalah techniques. In fact, even Eliza eventually gets in on the action of sneaking around in the name of finding spiritual truth. I kept turning the pages to find out when and how Saul's house of cards was going to tumble. When will Mom be arrested? How will the family react when she does? When will Aaron have to own up to the fact that he is no longer the perfect Jewish son? How will Eliza fare in the next bee? The ending was a bit puzzling, but my take on it is that the family wants to return to normal. In this family, however, what passed for normalcy was actually oblivion, and revelation of the truth is something that you can't undo. Nor can someone who has a rare gift return to mediocrity.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

BAIT AND SWITCH by Barbara Ehrenreich

Reading this book made me so grateful to have a job that I may postpone retirement. Barbara Ehrenreich goes undercover to join the ranks of the over-40, white-collar unemployed, to find a job in corporate America. However, she has to fabricate her resumé and is seeking a high-level position in public relations. Somehow, I have to give corporate America some credit for not hiring this fraud. In her quest, she seems to make every mistake possible—spending outlandish amounts of money on greedy and unqualified career coaches, networking primarily with other job seekers, and aiming too high. I'm not sure if these mistakes were due to her lack of experience in corporate America or if she made them intentionally for the benefit of the book. In any case, I think she stereotypes corporations as unethical, unimaginative, and intolerant of dissent, and I don't think she's qualified to make these generalizations. A business is in the business of making money, and I work for a very large, global corporation, but I don't see it as bland and heartless, although I expect that many of my co-workers do. The author also makes blanket statements about how corporations expect their employees to be upbeat and often make new hires based on personality rather than experience. What she apparently fails to realize is that one chronic complainer can affect the morale of everyone around him/her, and poor morale is the bane of every company's existence. On the other hand, I don't think most companies discourage well-formulated ideas for positive change. Sure, there are a lot of Enrons and AIGs out there, and corporate American has certainly earned a black eye with all their misdeeds and cover-ups, but I'm still naïve enough to believe that some corporations do still value their employees as their most irreplaceable asset.


If you like memoirs and are tired of hard-luck childhoods, this might be the book for you. It's not really a celebrity memoir, and it's certainly not a tell-all, as it ends with his marriage at 22. Brokaw was the golden boy of his high school—athlete (though not a star), student body president, and Boys' State governor. The only things he didn't excel at, besides sports, were music and Algebra II. He also had some difficulty getting the hometown girl he wanted, Miss South Dakota Meredith Auld, as she spurned him for "having a girl in every port" and for his irresponsibility during his senior year of high school and freshman year of college. He cleaned up his act, though, and even won over her prestigious parents, despite his own blue collar upbringing. His father was a heavy machinery operator for the Army Corps of Engineers, and Tom's mother worked at the post office and then later managed a shoe store. Brokaw was lucky in that he never lacked for good role models and mentors, including his very industrious parents. Still, his ego and affinity for partying almost derailed him at a time when he felt that he could do no wrong and would always be forgiven occasional lapses.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Delia went straight from her father's arms to her husband's at 18 and even continued to live in the same house. Now at 41, on vacation with her extended family, she starts walking on the beach and then just keeps on walking to … wherever. She eventually lands in the small town of Bay Borough, wearing a swimsuit and robe, with $500 and little else. It's unclear to both Delia and the reader why she feels the need to abandon her old life, but one obvious reason is that she wants to start over from scratch, making her own way, without being propped up by her men. Her new friends in Bay Borough assume that she's escaping a husband who beats her, but that is definitely not the case. She has a grown daughter, a son in college, and a 15-year-old son. She cries herself to sleep at night, but, again, whether the tears are the result of guilt or loneliness or what is a mystery. The biggest clue lies in the newspaper article about her disappearance. Apparently, her family members cannot describe her physical characteristics, much less what she was wearing when last seen. There's a disconnect somewhere. Delia realizes that her new life in Bay Borough is temporary, but she's not sure how temporary. I would recommend an anti-depressant or a shrink, but Anne Tyler is content to let her characters wander around in their heads for a while.


Ben Joe is a law student at Columbia but misses his six sisters back in North Carolina and seems convinced that they can't manage without him. Bored with his studies, he makes an impromptu trip home. All is well there, except that the oldest sister, Joanne has left her husband back in Kansas and come back home with her toddler daughter. Ben Joe's sudden presence is taken in stride, almost as though he's never left, and once again he realizes that being back is not as gratifying as he had imagined. For solace, he turns to his high school girlfriend Shelley, who has been orphaned by a car accident but is much more upbeat than Ben Joe. She's obviously still carrying a torch for Ben Joe but hoping to marry her current boyfriend, John Horner, whom Ben Joe keeps referring to as Jack Horner of nursery rhyme fame. This is vintage Anne Tyler humor with the usual unusual family members and no tragedy to speak of. Ben Joe's mother hen tendencies may stem from the fact that his father, a doctor, abandoned the family for another woman in town, with whom he sired a child. The essence of the book, though, is in the details. One of my favorite scenes in the book is that of Ben Joe's train trip home, where he meets an old man on his way to a retirement home and an African-American family who admire his father. This encounter is especially intriguing, given that this book was originally published in 1964. I also loved the scene where Ben Joe appears unannounced at Shelley's, and her hair is in curlers. And there's a brief anecdote about the misunderstanding of a boat's name as Saga City rather than Sagacity. In some ways this book reminded me of The Graduate, without Mrs. Robinson.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

CUTTING FOR STONE by Abraham Verghese

The first 100 or so pages describe the birth of the narrator, Marion Stone, and his twin brother Shiva, at a mission hospital in Addis Adaba, Ethiopia. I know this sounds weird, but this opening section is very fast-paced and grabbed me, even though I knew the outcome. For one thing, the mother is a nun and a nurse, and no one is even aware that she's pregnant. Plus, the twins are conjoined in the womb, so that someone is going to have to perform a Caesarean. The hospital's only OB doctor is having a traumatic experience of her own in an airplane that seems destined to crash. One would assume that the hospital's surgeon would be up to the task, but not so, because he's the twins' horrified father, who basically abandons the scene and flees the country. Hema, the OB doctor, finally arrives, and she and the internist, Ghosh, become the twins' adopted parents. The next several hundred pages could be whittled down to about half their girth, as we are exposed to suicide, mutilation, betrayal, accidental murder, and an attempted coup, bringing about a sense that what goes around comes around. I did find it interesting how Marion and Ghosh are able to diagnose illnesses, such as diabetes and kidney failure, using their sense of smell, just like those cancer-sniffing dogs I've read about. Ultimately, though, I think the book is about love, especially between two brothers whose personalities are not nearly as alike as their DNA. The book wraps up with another medical emergency involving most of the same players that are in the opening scene, except this time they are in a New York City hospital, attempting not just to save a life but also to make medical history.

LYING AWAKE by Mark Salzman

Sister John is a nun with a brain tumor, which is giving her migraine-like headaches. On the plus side, it's also causing seizures that she interprets as very spiritual moments because of the peace and beautiful visions that she experiences. These seizures have, in fact, rescued her from troubling doubts about her religious calling. She finds that there have been other historical figures, including Dostoevsky, that have also enjoyed their seizures. Therefore, she is conflicted about having surgery to remove the tumor, as she will subsequently be thrust back into the drudgery of her secluded life without enjoying the divine presence her seizures provide. Salzman does a decent job of conveying what the life of a contemplative nun is like, but that's not something that particularly interests me. The book raises the question of religious motivation and the fact that leading a monastic life in order to reach heaven or avoid hell is selfish and not what God requires. In fact, joining a religious order because you enjoy God's company is also selfish. In other words, motivation is more important than results.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

KAATERSKILL FALLS by Allegra Goodman

At first I was a bit turned off by the subject matter of this book. It's about a group of Orthodox Jews who spend their summers together in a community called Kaaterskill Falls. It became more appealing, though, as I got to know the characters. There's Renee, a teenager whose friend Stephanie encourages her to become marginally more rebellious by quitting her unbearable volunteer post at the day camp and getting a job at the library. There's her father Andras who disapproves of his young wife Nina's constant nagging of Renee to practice at the piano. There are brothers Jeremy and Isaiah, one of whom will take over for their ailing father as the leader of the community. Isaiah has tried to follow in his father's footsteps but can never match his intellectual capacity. Jeremy, on the other hand, is an academic with little regard for religious traditions. (I think it's interesting that the author of this very Jewish book refers to Jeremy as the prodigal son, since that was one of Jesus's most famous parables from the New Testament.) And there's Elizabeth, mother of five daughters, who suddenly decides that she wants to open a kosher store in Kaaterskill Falls. Hers is the primary storyline, as she loses her enthusiasm for life and then has it restored by a comment from Andras, reminding her that in America anything is possible. The boundaries we set are often self-imposed.