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….