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.