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.


As you might guess, this is a Jewish family saga, but, while I was reading it, I didn't realize that it's apparently intended as a tightly woven collection of stories. Although I think it was supposed to be funny, I was certainly glad that Rose Markowitz was not my mother. She imposes herself on her grown sons, Ed and Henry, and is jealous of her daughter-in-law's mother, who is equally annoying and overbearing. When Ed and Sarah's daughter Miriam's wedding invitation list more than doubles because her grandmothers insist on inviting all their old friends, I became totally exasperated. I guess disciplining of unruly grandparents is a lost cause and not necessarily beneficial to family harmony. Rose has selective amnesia, remembering what she wants to remember, from her childhood, and also more recent items, such as the religious affiliation of Henry's future bride, Susan. There is one really hilarious section of the book, however. Ed, an academic authority on the Middle East and terrorism, attends a conference in an earth-sheltered compound in California that turns out to be something like an AA meeting. When Ed is called on to tell his personal story, his rant against the structure of the conference, or lack thereof, is priceless.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

CHRONIC CITY by Jonathan Lethem

Los Angeles may be Tinseltown, but this book is full of frivolous New Yorkers. Chase Insteadman is a former child star and socialite, living off of his TV residuals. He enjoys a life of endless dinner parties and is well-known as the fiancĂ© of Janice Trumbull, an astronaut stranded in space. Obviously, Chase really is an "insteadman," or a stand-in, or basically a handsome face with not much substance, inhabiting other people's lives, both on-screen and off. He becomes friends with Perkus Tooth, who is just the opposite—not much to look at but with a magnetic personality, if you like a lot of name-dropping of obscure movies and books. Chronic City is all about separating the real from the fake, or, in many cases, the "something" from the "nothing." There are a lot of symbolic voids, including a restaurant named Jackson Hole that becomes—you guessed it—a hole. Chase, Perkus, and a couple of other characters become obsessed with a kind of vase called a chaldron that is only seen in photos. There's even an artist named Noteless who specializes in creating voids. Finally, Perkus develops a "chronic" case of hiccups, so that there are holes in his sentences. And the city itself reaches the pinnacle of fakery when it blames all sorts of destruction, including the collapse of Jackson Hole, on a loose tiger, which may just be a euphemism for a piece of earth-moving equipment run amok.
Amazon: 3.5 stars (76 reviews)
Barnes & Noble: 3.5 stars (23 reviews)

THE RED TENT by Anita Diamant

The narrator of this highly embellished Biblical story is Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob, whose wives include Leah (Dinah's mother) and her three sisters. Dinah's brothers and father are shepherds by trade, but they're basically murderous barbarians. This is a somewhat violent tale, contrasted with the midwifery of Dinah and her aunt Rachel, who have the mission of bringing life into the world. Grief and anger eventually drive Dinah from the sisterhood of her aunts to Egypt, where she bears her child in the house of her husband's mother. This is certainly a saga of Dinah's lost innocence but more about the dignity and compassion which she maintains throughout her colorful life. She exhibits an independence that was not typical of the day, and yet her friendships sustain and rescue her time and again. It's also a story of female bonding in a very male-dominated world, and I suppose that this theme is what made this book so popular.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


In my favorite chapter, Ruth and 3 other sex-ed teachers are having to write an essay on a sexual encounter that they regret. The fundamentalist woman in charge promises that she won't be judgmental--yeah, right. One teacher is a lesbian who writes about her first and only hookup with a guy. Then another woman writes about having sex with her best friend's husband-to-be. Then a guy writes about having sex with a minor. It's just too morbidly funny, because you can't help being judgmental. Ruth realizes that she regrets virtually ALL of her sexual encounters, and yet she's furious about having to advocate abstinence to high schoolers. Actually, the book is not so much about abstinence as it is about the conflict between the religious right and those of us who still believe in the separation of church and state. Tim is a soccer coach and reformed alcoholic whose life has been turned around by Christianity. When he leads the team in prayer after a big win, Ruth jumps into action, yanking her daughter from the circle. Ruth is feisty and righteously indignant, and I applauded her chutzpah, especially when she slaps Tim for lying to her. It would be easy to say that these two characters are an example of how opposites attract, but really their relationship is more complicated than that. Although Tim has remarried, both Tim and Ruth are trying to raise daughters jointly with their former spouses, and in some ways they're each responsible for the difficulties that the other is grappling with. Ruth's best friends are a gay couple, and when they hit a rocky spot because Gregory won't propose to Russell, Ruth suggests perhaps Russell should propose instead. She and Tim have a role reversal as well. She is obviously the stronger party and the gatekeeper of their relationship, driving away the forces, such as Pastor Dennis, who have a stranglehold on Tim's life.

THE DANTE CLUB by Matthew Pearl

Since this book of life imitating art was billed as a literary mystery, I had great expectations but was a trifle disappointed. I didn't mind that it was somewhat gory, but it was a bit too slow-paced. The title refers to a group of men, including Oliver Wendell Holmes and James Russell Lowell, who are assisting Longfellow in the first American translation of Dante's Divine Comedy in Boston. Oddly enough, the Harvard board has some objections to this work, due to anti-Catholic sentiment and because Italian is a modern language and therefore not worth studying. The Dante Club soon realizes that several local murders are apparently inspired by Dante's Inferno and that they may become suspects. Consequently, they embark on some clandestine investigations of their own. The source of the leak of Dante information is very obvious, but the identity of the real culprit, whom they dub "Lucifer," is not. Still, the book is not particularly suspenseful, although the casting of Longfellow as an amateur sleuth is refreshing, I guess. The author does do a good job of evoking the post-Civil War times, and his expansion of the personalities of well-known poets is entertaining.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A FINE BALANCE by Rohinton Mistry

There's a sentence in the book that refers to the fine balance between hope and despair. Set in India in the 1970s, the book addresses other dichotomies, such as male/female, haves/have-nots, and lucky/unlucky. The four main characters are Dina, Maneck, Om, and Ishvar. Dina is a 40-something widow in India renting out a room in her ramshackle flat to Maneck, a college student. She also employs 2 untouchables, Ishvar and his nephew Om, as tailors to help make ends meet. Gradually, this foursome becomes a loose family, as Dina throws caution to the wind and offers living space on her veranda to the tailors. She succumbs to this inevitable arrangement to save them from the constant peril and uncertainty of living in the slums or on the streets. I think that this book could be reduced in length by a few hundred pages without serious harm, but I will say that I became immersed in the lives of the characters after spending so much time with them. Oddly enough, hope and despair do not align naturally along caste boundaries. Maneck has no real barriers to success, financial or otherwise, but he is somewhat morose and constantly at odds with his father. Dina occasionally has to stoop to relying on the good graces of her brother, who treats her like a servant, but at least she'll never be completely homeless. Om and Ishvar, on the other hand, despite their sewing skills, are invariably on the fringe, precariously teetering between an almost tolerable life and unimaginable suffering at the hands of those in power. Maneck sees life as a game of chess, but the tailors cannot comprehend a stalemate, much less the no-way-out concept of checkmate. Ishvar, the least showy character, is the one who keeps trudging forward, hoping for a better life for himself and Om, but thwarted at every move.


This slim enigmatic novel provides a way to get a taste for DeLillo's writing without investing too much time. The first chapter is just about a couple's thoughts during breakfast, but it's more like two soliloquies, and it's my favorite section of the book. Actually, it's more like each person is having a dialogue with him or herself. Then Lauren's husband commits suicide at this ex-wife's house, to "spare Lauren the mess," and the book gets somewhat cryptic. A little man appears in the house who nonsensically parrots conversations, both past and future. How long has he been there? Is he real or a figment of Lauren's imagination that stems from her grief? Lauren is a chameleon herself--a performer who seemingly changes her gender and size on stage. The author switches to second person narration for descriptions of universal activities, such as recognizing the sound of a paperclip hitting the floor. White Noise was a much more straightforward book, and its discussion between father and son about how to know if it's raining is priceless.