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.