Wednesday, September 29, 2010

THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU by Jonathan Tropper

I can see how this book, alternately funny and poignant, would be a good candidate for a movie, but it's an even better novel. Judd Foxman and his three siblings, along with their stiletto-wearing, breast-enhanced mother, are sitting shiva for their recently deceased father. This means that the five of them, plus their families, will be spending the next week in the same house. Judd and his beloved wife, Jen, however, have separated, after Judd discovered her in their bed with his boss. Judd, nursing an acutely broken heart, is somewhat lost after the demise of his marriage, but his brothers are not any better off. His older brother Paul harbors a mountain of pent-up resentment against Judd, blaming him for an unfortunate encounter with a dog, which destroyed Paul's plans for a professional baseball career. The youngest brother Phil is basically a screw-up that delivers outrageous fabrications about his current occupation to anyone who asks. Wendy, their sister, manages to steer clear of most of the mayhem, but there is so much emotion that needs to be aired, particularly between Judd and Paul, that plenty of sparks fly. Scattered among the fistfights and slamming doors are some very funny, memorable moments, including some potty humor, some hilarious banter with children in which the word "donkey" is substituted for the word "ass," and a pot smoking scene in the synagogue. Judd occasionally throws out some bitterly honest remarks that both shock and amuse, and almost every night he has nightmares of having an artificial leg. Then one night he dreams that his father removes the prosthetic to reveal a perfectly uninjured leg. My guess is that this dream symbolizes how broken his life is and that this family reunion in honor of his father somehow has the potential to help him restore order. Phil's current girlfriend, Tracy—an older woman and Phil's former shrink—offers Judd some very sage advice that we can only hope he has the good sense to follow.
Amazon: 4 stars (190 reviews)
Barnes & Noble: 4 stars (73 reviews)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

SEA OF POPPIES by Amitav Ghosh

My reading of this book was a long and arduous task, partly due to the zillions of foreign and slang words. (There's a dictionary at the back, but almost all of the words I looked up were not there.) The story has potential, with a group of diverse characters having been thrown together in one place, like Bel Canto. In this case, the place is the Ibis, a ship sailing from Calcutta to Mauritius in the early 1800s. However, the ship doesn't sail until about three-quarters of the way through the book, giving us a chance to become well acquainted with the main characters before the debarkation. Deeti is married to an opium addict, and Kalua is a cart driver who helps Deeti escape her evil in-laws after her husband dies. Neel is an aristocrat on the brink of bankruptcy who can't fathom the lengths to which his creditor will go to acquire his lands. Pauline is the orphaned daughter of a botanist, whose childhood friend Jodu has secured a position as a crew member on the Ibis. The American Zachary Reid, whose mother was a quadroon freedwoman, is the second mate of the Ibis, and there's a budding love story between him and Pauline. For reasons unrelated to her feelings for Zachary, Pauline will stop at nothing to somehow join this voyage. Perhaps the most exasperating aspect of this book is that it is intended as the first episode in a trilogy. As such, the ending is a teaser that left me wondering why I had bothered, because I'm not sure I can wade through two more books like it. The story does transport the reader to another place and time, but it progresses at a snail's pace, evocative of the effect of opium, India's cash crop of the day, at least until its export to China is banned by the government. The theme that seems to pervade the book is the injustice of not only the caste system but racial prejudice in general, and how power atop the perceived hierarchy is used to keep those at the lower rungs of the ladder in their place. There's an interesting reverse-discrimination scene near the end where the lowlife 2nd mate, Mr. Crowle, drops his intense dislike for Zachary and tries to recruit him for a coup, when he finds that Zachary has African blood. Also, who knew that "canvas," originally woven from hemp to make sails, is a derivation of the word "cannabis"?
Amazon: 4 stars (105 reviews)
Barnes & Noble: 3.5 stars (31 reviews)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

INVISIBLE SISTERS by Jessica Handler

I could never write a memoir because, for one thing, I had a relatively normal childhood, and, for another, I didn't keep a journal. However, Jessica Handler did keep a journal and had a very difficult childhood, being the "well" sister. I viewed this book as sort of a memorial to her two younger siblings, Sarah and Susie, who had very different but ultimately fatal diseases. The impact of this tragic coincidence on a family is almost unimaginable, and Jessica Handler documents her family's lives in a rather scattered manner, something like an out-of-order scrapbook. I can't say that this jumbling of events made the book hard to follow, since it's really a very fast read. Thank heavens, because I didn't really want to spend too much time in this household. It's not surprising that young Jessica used drugs and toxic friendships as her escapes from survivor's guilt and the widening chasm between her parents. I was also glad that this book was not as tear-inducing as I thought it would be, since the tone is really rather matter-of-fact. Handler's father is a very intriguing figure, a labor union attorney who moved his family to Atlanta in the 1960s and who had his own demons to face as he struggled to be the head of a family whose members were dying. Her mother appears to be rock solid through all the tragedy, but the failure on the part of both parents to encourage expressions of grief was ultimately destructive to their family dynamic. I'm guessing that pouring out her memories on paper was cathartic for the author, and in the interview in the back of the book she says that she was surprised at how much she laughed while writing it. Needless to say, she doesn't share enough of this humor with the reader. Her husband also has a very bizarre story to tell, and their complicated histories draw them together.
Amazon: 4.5 stars (19 reviews)
Barnes & Noble: 4 stars (3 reviews)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

THE GLASS ROOM by Simon Mawer

This was my first ebook, and how appropriate that it's about an ultra-modern house. Viktor Landauer is a wealthy Czechoslovakian car manufacturer, about to start a family with his wife Liesel, just before WWII. They contract with an unconventional architect to build a house whose main living space is walled by glass. Viktor is a Jew and leads his family on a journey that culminates in the U.S. What's unusual about this story is that Viktor's mistress, Kata, herself a Jewish refugee, comes to live with the family as their nanny. Thus we have an awkward threesome, but this does not make for a tawdry core to the novel. In fact, the house is really the main character, as we follow its various purposes—a laboratory, a dance studio, a museum. Liesel's close friend Hana, whose husband Oskar is also a Jew, is witness to these transformations of the house, and, in my mind, is the most interesting person in the book. She has two great loves, Liesel and Oskar, and sells herself to a Nazi scientist in an effort to save her husband. Despite the turmoil and tragedy of the times, this book never really grabbed me emotionally. And certainly the house doesn't give off any warm and fuzzy vibes. The most fascinating subplot was that of the interim in which the house serves as a research facility, whose purpose is to isolate some distinguishing physical characteristic that would identify Jews unequivocally. Needless to say, no amount of measuring body parts or blood work provides the telltale sign. What is odd about this endeavor is that there's intermarriage, even among the main characters, so that someone who is of purely Jewish descent is somewhat rare, especially since those with the means to do so have fled the country. Even the head scientist himself has a recessive trait that implies that he may have had a Jewish ancestor. Ironically, due to this gene's tragic impact on his family, he is especially motivated to eradicate the Jews.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

THE LACUNA by Barbara Kingsolver

I love the way Kingsolver inserts her protagonist into the lives of real people in this book. It's not exactly historical fiction, in my opinion, since the main character is fictional, yet real events are more than just a backdrop. A lacuna is a gap or a hole, and Harrison Shepherd leads a fractured life. His father is American, but his Mexican mother follows her lover to Mexico in 1929, and young Harrison is obliged to follow. Then he begins doing odd jobs for the artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, who later offer asylum to Leon Trotsky, the Russian leader who is a target of Stalin's henchmen. Shepherd is the consummate observer, whose diary entries constitute a large portion of the book. After Trotsky's murder, Shepherd flees to the U.S., where he eventually settles in Asheville and writes two very popular novels about the Aztecs and their conflicts with the Spaniards. Then McCarthyism rides in on the heels of WWII, and guess what? Shepherd's Mexican artist friends were communists, and even his novels come under the microscope as possibly being subversive. Kingsolver is not bashful about making some political and social statements here. I'm reminded of the Patriot Act and other signs of paranoia after 9/11. A quote from one of Shepherd's novels in which a soldier describes a leader as an "empty sack" (another lacuna, so to speak) leads to Shepherd's being deemed "un-American." So much for freedom of speech, and fiction being treated as fiction. One of my favorite of Shepherd's musings is when he ponders the possibility of allowing his stenographer, Violet Brown, to move in with him when her rent is increased. He is gay, though closeted, but knows that it would be inappropriate in that day and time. In Mexico, on the other hand, a household can be an amalgamation of unrelated people, and everyone sees it as a perfectly reasonable and practical choice. Kingsolver also makes the point that Mexicans are drawn in two directions because of their mixed blood but tend to downplay their Aztec or Mayan lineage, perhaps because the Spaniards were the victors. I think that, besides giving us a good story, perhaps Kingsolver is warning us that civilization is not necessarily making strides in a more enlightened direction, as we seem doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.