Wednesday, March 31, 2010

THE MAN OF MY DREAMS by Curtis Sittenfeld

If a girl has to kiss a lot of frogs to find her prince, then Hannah has a long way to go. Still waiting for her first kiss in college, she has a beautiful sister Allison and a beautiful cousin Fig. Hannah herself, however, according to Fig's ex-boyfriend Henry, is the kind of woman that men marry rather than date. She's smart and spunky with few relationship role models. During Hannah's childhood, her dad evicts his wife and two daughters from their home during one of his temper tantrums, and Hannah spends the summer with her aunt and uncle, whom she hardly knows. Hannah is more likeable than the protagonists of Sittenfeld's Prep and American Wife, and we share her pain as she attempts to hide from her sister the fact that she's seeing a shrink. Then we bask in the irony that Allison and her husband, who seem to be the perfect couple, are seeing a marriage counselor. The book, however, as is obvious from the title, focuses on Hannah's candidates for the perfect husband. Despite her aunt's warnings that such a person doesn't exist, Hannah becomes involved with Mike, who adores her but doesn't excite her, then Oliver, who flagrantly cheats on her. Still, she carries a torch for Henry, with whom she can share everything, except perhaps a bed. The final chapter is classic—a reflective letter from Hannah to her psychiatrist that just made me want to congratulate her on the wise perspective it's taken her so long to achieve.


I did not enjoy this as much as I did Elizabeth Berg's earlier book, The Art of Mending. The author's note at the beginning explains that the book was inspired by a true story, and that put me off. I would have preferred this information to have been presented as an acknowledgment at the end. The story takes place in Tupelo in the 60's, and the discrimination and hardships that a woman paralyzed from polio experiences are told side-by-side with the civil rights struggles of the era. The woman's daughter, who was born while the mother was in an iron lung, tells the story from her fourteen-year-old point of view. The standout character, however, is Peacie, the no-nonsense African-American caregiver, who performs some of the motherly duties that the disabled mother is unable to. The Tupelo setting also foreshadows an Elvis intervention that makes for a tidy but unlikely ending.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


If you saw the documentary Man on Wire, then you know that Philippe Petit strung a cable between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974 and walked, skipped, and hopped across in the wee hours of the morning. This day and event tie together the stories of several New Yorkers, and even an amusing group of California computer hackers. Petit broke a few laws to accomplish his feat, and Sol Soderberg, one of a diverse cast of narrators, is thrilled to be the lucky judge who will preside over Petit's case. Meanwhile, Sol's wife Claire is clandestinely hosting a support group for mothers who have lost sons in Vietnam. Her Park Avenue apartment sets her apart from the other members, but in some ways she is the most tragic character in the book, in her lonely, desperate attempt to bridge the gap between herself and Gloria, an African-American woman from the Bronx. Gloria's neighbors include Corrigan, a monk struggling with his celibacy vows, a mother/daughter pair of prostitutes, and Corrigan's brother, recently arrived from Ireland. In this case, Gloria is the one walking the tightrope as she careens between the poverty of her neighborhood and her new friend Claire's opulent life. This started out as a snoozer, but I became more wrapped up in it as the narrators' intertwining stories started to click. At the end I felt as though I had definitely spun full circle, but I thought that Lark & Termite was more deserving of the National Book Award.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

OUTLIERS by Malcolm Gladwell

We all know that being in the right place at the right time has a lot to do with success. Malcolm Gladwell gives us plenty of examples, the first of which is about being born in the right month if you aspire to professional hockey in Canada. He also stresses the importance of ambition, hard work, and the influences that shape our lives. The most disturbing section has to do with cultural influences and the devastating airline tragedies that occurred partly because of a co-pilot who was overly deferential to the captain and to air traffic controllers. The author often reminds us that it's not necessary to be exceedingly smart to be successful; it's just necessary to be smart enough. He gives the example of a man whose IQ is in the 190s but didn’t finish college because of his inability to negotiate a class schedule that would allow him to continue. In contrast, another man attempted to murder a professor and still went on to become immensely successful. Near the end, he takes a linguistic approach to explaining one of the reasons Asians excel at math. I had never really considered how the English language makes arithmetic more difficult than it needs to be. He also presents a strong case for year-round school.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

THE DOCTOR'S WIFE by Elizabeth Brundage

I gobbled this book up with relish. Somewhere buried in it is a statement against extreme fundamentalists who are willing to kill the abortionists to save the unborn fetuses, but it's such a page-turner that the creed of the crazies is not really a factor. The victims are not exactly blameless, either, although the only thing that Michael, an OB/GYN who moonlights at an abortion clinic, can be faulted for is his severe neglect of his family. His wife Annie, on the other hand, becomes involved with Simon, an artist and colleague, and is the real cause of the wrath that is brought down on her family, since Simon's delusional and demented wife Lydia is one of the extremists. This may not be great literature, but the frenetic pace, not to mention the sleazy motel sex scenes, kept me eager to resume reading it. Despite the title, I thought that the amazingly beautiful Lydia was the central figure. Simon became her guardian when she was 14 and married her when she was 19, and we know more about her past than about Annie's privileged upbringing. Simon gained fame and fortune, thanks to a series of paintings of the teenage Lydia. He manages to shield her from the general public until he lands a job as a professor in a small New England college. Lydia doesn't disappoint, as I held my breath when she is unleashed on Simon's educated and well-to-do friends. Lydia's hold on Simon, however, is somewhat of enigma, and I never quite got a grasp on their relationship. His affair with Annie belies his love for Lydia, but he continues to provide a smokescreen for Lydia's increasingly violent criminal activity. Perhaps he feels guilty for having profited from her total dependence on him.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Similarities to Mudbound abound in this novel (evil racists and even a repugnant aging parent), but I thought this was a much better read. Olivia is raising her grandson Will'm in Aurora, Kentucky, and housing her mother Ida, who spent some time in a mental institution and barely acknowledges Olivia as her daughter. The book is part love story, part mystery, and part family saga about 3 generations of women. Olivia is no saint and doesn't even know who is the biological father of her daughter Pauline. Pauline repeats some of her mother's mistakes and then leaves Will'm behind when she heads for Hollywood. Wolves turning up dead and missing an ear are indicative of the violence that simmers in Aurora, and Olivia suspects that someone is making a statement to get her attention. Her assumptions about the reason for her neighbors' animosity are inaccurate, however, and this is where the mystery comes in. My guess on the title is that it stems from an event at the beginning of the book. Olivia has stitched up a wounded wolf, who then escapes overnight by jumping through a window, only to meet a grim fate. Throughout the book Olivia is scraping together the shards of her life, trying to make sense of her heritage and her offspring. The wolves themselves are also a symbolic presence and perhaps represent innocent souls being hunted, tortured, and killed for no reason.