Tuesday, December 27, 2011

THE BLUE ORCHARD by Jackson Taylor


Verna Krone, the author's real-life grandmother, narrates this novel, beginning with her departure from school in the eighth grade, so that she can work to help feed her mother and siblings. Raped by her first employer, she aborts his baby with the help of a concoction that renders her comatose for three weeks. Another pregnancy produces a son, Sam, but the father of this child is married to another woman, so that Verna abandons Sam to her mother for upbringing. The two main conflicts in the book center around Verna's difficult relationship with her son and her emotions about her eventual position as a nurse, assisting a black abortionist. The job is lucrative, and Verna's own experiences certainly enable her to empathize with the young women who come to Dr. Crampton for help, but it's the 1950s, and the political climate in Harrisburg, PA, is changing. Dr. Crampton's friends in high places are losing their clout, and the new Catholic district attorney is not so tolerant of Crampton's illegal sideline. Verna is forthright and principled, but she makes some bad decisions where men are concerned and is a little too flagrant in flaunting her ill-gotten wealth. Her rise from poverty and her ultimate refusal to perjure herself make this novel worth reading, but just barely. Verna's clandestine profession precludes her from having a large number of friends, and that's a shame, because she is definitely a person worth knowing. In fact, it would have been far more gratifying to have known her than it was to read about her.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

WHAT IS THE WHAT by Dave Eggers


Should we be content with what we have or reach out for the unknown? The title stems from a fable that poses this question, and legend has it that the Sudanese chose the contentment route. Frankly, it has not worked out very well for them, as civil war has ravaged the country for years. The "lost boy" who narrates this fictionalized biography is transported to the U.S. on the heels of the 9/11 tragedy, after having lived in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya for most of his life. He does not even know the fate of his parents until he is a young man. The variety of first names by which he is known—Achak, Valentino, Dominic—underscores the fact that his identity is a moving target. His idea of "home" is always the community of his childhood, and he never gives up the notion of going back, despite the constant turmoil there. His story swings back and forth between his current struggle to finish his education in Atlanta and his previous struggles and suffering in Africa. One might assume that his life in the U.S. would be far superior, but, no, safety is still an issue. He's beaten and tied up by burglars and then is treated as a non-person at the hospital where he seeks medical attention afterward. His spirit, though, is resilient, having survived exhaustion, starvation, and disease during his several treks, with thousands of other children, from the perils of the Sudan. He reaches out for the "what"—the unknown future that awaits him, somewhere other than Atlanta.

Friday, December 16, 2011

BOSSYPANTS by Tina Fey


I've never watched 30 Rock, but then I guess not many people do, despite its critical acclaim. Although Tina Fey doesn't consider herself particularly adept at impressions, she certainly does a spot-on Sarah Palin. She also does some other funny voices, and for this reason, I recommend the audiobook, which she reads herself. (The last CD has photos and video clips as a bonus.) She covers a lot of ground, from being a late-in-life family addition to her contemplation of having a second child and how that decision impacts the fate of her TV show and its hundreds of employees. She's definitely a soaring example of how to laugh at one's self—from her myriad self-deprecating comments about her looks, to her interview with Lorne Michaels for a position as a writer for Saturday Night Live. I loved the irony in the fact that she has no particular difficulty shouldering her role as "bossypants" for 30 Rock but can't bring herself to scold the nanny for cutting her daughter's fingernails too short. There's also a healthy dose of feminism, broached with humor, ranging from Second City's preference for a male majority in their traveling improv groups, to her response to several pundits who proclaim that women are not funny. She's certainly proven them wrong.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

BIRD CLOUD by Annie Proulx


I thought this memoir would be similar to Frances Mayes' Under the Tuscan Sun, and it was, in a way. Of course, this book is about the building of new house in Wyoming, as opposed to restoring an old villa in Tuscany, but many of the problems are the same: acquiring the property, poor workmanship, budget overruns, plumbing disasters, the difficulty of living in a space that is under construction, etc. In both books, the most reliable and skilled workers become almost like family. However, Bird Cloud opens with an overly long section about the author's father's family history, and this just seemed like filler to me. The middle section is about the process of designing and building the house, and the pace of the book picks up after the genealogy section ends. The final section is devoted to birds on the property, and I have mixed feelings about that section. I think she wanted to make a point about the fact that no matter how much effort and expense you put into building a house that is friendly to the environment, you are almost certain to disrupt some habitats. In one instance, a flock of birds (I forget the species) stopped feeding near the house because the landscapers replaced the weeds with a native grass. The finale is an homage to the bald and golden eagles that take up residence near the house and is immensely sad, while at the same time depicting their resilience. Certainly the fact that the house is unreachable in winter is a showstopper, but possibly her guilt over its impact on the wildlife may taint her love of the surrounding beauty enough to force her to sell it. We'll see…

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

ARE YOU THERE, VODKA? IT'S ME, CHELSEA by Chelsea Handler



Some of Handler's stories are just plain embarrassing, and I have to hand it to her for owning up, assuming all of them are basically true. On the other hand, in some cases there was just too much information. I didn't actually read this book; I listened to the audio version, and I think that's the way to go. She does a fake English accent to re-create a scene in a London restaurant, and her other vocal imitations evoke vivid images of everyone from her dad to her fellow inmates at a women's prison where she was incarcerated briefly for a DUI. She refreshingly eschews political correctness with her tale of a drunken, manipulative dwarf and stashes a lover under the bed while another lover dumps her. Her mouth lands her in various chases that end with scraped knees and dishevelment, including a rumble that she unwisely initiates – emboldened by her kickboxing training – with a group of Latinas,. She's scrupulously honest at times, including the admission of a re-gifting to a woman who lied about having a birthday, and on other occasions finds herself way out on a limb, after having begun telling some fiction on a lark. The best LOL moment is when she keeps a food journal for a nutritionist and recounts the exact number of items she ate at a shower, including more than a dozen jalapeƱo poppers and pigs-in-a-blanket.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

ALL OVER BUT THE SHOUTIN' by Rick Bragg


Rick Bragg's memoir is like Angela's Ashes set in rural Alabama. His mother repeatedly has to bundle up her family and return to her mother's farm to escape the wrath of her alcoholic husband. For her three sons, anything is preferable to life with their father, where starvation is just around the corner, since his employability makes them ineligible for welfare. Like Frank McCourt, Rick Bragg's love of books helps lift him out of poverty. Bragg manages to inject a good amount of humor into his story as well, but I could have done without the bad grammar that just helps propagate the myth that all Southerners butcher the language. The book became less engrossing after the author reaches adulthood, working as a reporter for a string of newspapers. I have to say, though, that the most moving section of the book was his account of his mother's accompanying him to New York to receive his Pulitzer Prize.

Monday, December 12, 2011

THE PRIZE WINNER OF DEFIANCE, OHIO by Terry Ryan

I don't think Terry Ryan will win any awards as a writer, but I enjoyed this memoir just the same. Terry's mother, Eveyln, managed a household of ten children with no help from her hard-drinking Irish Catholic husband Kelly. Evelyn, though, refused to wallow in self-pity and instead demonstrated endless spunk in her quest to provide life's essentials and a few extra niceties for her family in the 50's. Armed with a passel of 4-cent stamps, Evelyn focused her surplus energy (how did she have any with 10 kids?) on contests in which the entrant supplied the last line of a jingle or described a product in 25 words or less. The book is filled with many of her winning entries and a lot more that resulted in zilch. It's interesting how the simplest line sometimes won, and sometimes the most obscure reference won. We discover what Evelyn already knew: the entry needed to fit the demeanor of the advertising company that was judging the entries. Evelyn couldn't resist sending in a few humorous ones to the stodgy judges and vice versa. She also had to be creative in avoiding sending in multiple entries under the same name. She won a big contest in her son's name that included a trip to New York to be on TV. She accompanied him on the trip, while the rest of her family tried in vain to watch from home on a TV that malfunctioned during a storm. Many of the contest windfalls arrived in the nick of time—twice just before eviction from their home. Each time she won a car, she had to sell it, since a family of twelve had no use for a two-seater sports car. Indeed.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

MR. PEANUT by Adam Ross


This is a book within a book—maybe. I definitely found it difficult to distinguish between what was reality and what was imagined, but I guess it doesn't really matter, since the whole book is a product of the author's imagination. However, there is an aspect of reality, as one of the main characters is Sam Sheppard, who was convicted in the1950s and then acquitted 10 years later of his wife's murder. Sheppard, who is depicted as a man with a sex addiction problem, has abandoned medicine to become a cop. His partner, Hastroll, has marital problems of his own, as his perfectly healthy wife has not left her bed in five months. The main character, though, is David Pepin, who loves his morbidly obese wife Alice just the way she is. The pivotal event in their lives is when she has her first miscarriage in an airplane toilet on the way to Hawaii. All three wives at some point expect their husbands to intuit what is on their minds, and all three husbands entertain fantasies of murdering their wives. I felt that Hastroll and Pepin were both quite justified in their perplexed frustration, though not to the point of murder, obviously. Divorce seemed a reasonable option, but both men inexplicably love their difficult wives. As for Sheppard, he is despicable in his adulterous liaisons, pushing the limits of what is acceptable even to his male buddies. Then there's the diminutive, devilish Mobius, a private eye hired by Pepin when his wife vanishes for months, who misconstrues his role as that of a hit man. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Nathan Harold, an airline employee whose job is to cater to the Pepins' every need during their stay in Hawaii—a "fixer" of a different ilk. Both Harold and Mobius seem to be marriage problem-solvers—one who advises flexible conciliation and one who has a more drastic solution. This dark novel is just as way out as it sounds, with the author keeping all of the characters at arm's length, and that may be just where they belong—out of reach and beyond sympathy or understanding.

Monday, December 5, 2011

PAPER CHILDREN by Marcia Fine



Her writing may not be spectacular, but Marcia Fine knows how to tell a story. This book comprises the lives of three Jewish women—Paulina, her daughter Sarah, and Sarah's daughter Mimi. Paulina grew up in Warsaw with custom-made clothes and a house full of servants. She marries Nathan, a Russian businessman, who ventures to the U.S. and finds the allure of freedom there undeniable. Paulina, now with two children, is very reluctant to abandon her extended family and pampered life for the unknown. Finally, threatening her with divorce, Nathan persuades Paulina to join him in New York. Nathan turns out to be a good provider, even during the Depression, but is an intimidating husband and father. Daughter Sarah longs to pursue a career in photography, but Nathan has no use for artistic endeavors. Meanwhile, back in Europe, where Hitler has ascended to power, Paulina's father believes that his wealth and influence will protect him, despite pleas from Paulina and Nathan to join them in the U.S. Nathan's family of Russian peasants, on the other hand, have all come to New York, ever grateful for Nathan's financial help but never learning English. When Sarah's photojournalism job leads her to Europe after the war, she learns the sad fate of her grandparents. Inspired by the life and stories of her grandmother, Ms. Fine's novel is heartbreaking but never wallows in despair or grief. All three women lead lives of unplanned adventure, and their responses to their situations make for very captivating fiction.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST by Stieg Larsson

Lisbeth Salander is wanted for murder and has been shot in the head. Her surgeon, Dr. Jonasson, just wants to save her brain and her life, regardless of what crimes she may have committed. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist, her sometimes friend, sometimes lover, sometimes neither, just wants to expose the corrupt system that has victimized Lisbeth since she was a child. There are more Swedish characters here than I could possibly keep up with, and that wouldn't be such a problem, except that I occasionally got confused as to who was a good guy and who was a bad guy—or gal, as the case may be. The primary bad guys are Lisbeth's brother Niedermann (whose name I word-associated to Neanderthal), who cannot feel physical pain, and the ultra-sleezy psychologist Teleborian. The plot, along with various subplots, conspiracies, and intrigues, builds to a crescendo with Lisbeth's trial, in which the whole hornet's nest is exposed to all parties, right up to the prime minister. This may not be a literary thriller, but it is certainly a gripping one, and a beautifully fluid translated one; there are none of the awkward phrases that so often annoy me in a translation. Realism may not reign supreme here, but at least the two main characters are heroic without being flawless. Lisbeth is amazingly resourceful but manages to antagonize even her supporters at times with her refusal to divulge even the most benign secrets. Mikael's relentless endeavor to clear Lisbeth's reputation and record is sullied slightly by his philandering ways. This book seems to have more female heroines than the previous two, including Mikael's latest paramour, the statuesque Inspector Monica Figuerola, plus Lisbeth's lawyer (and Mikael's sister) Annika Giannini, and Milton Security's Susanne Linder, whose client is the eternally gutsy Erika Berger. Thank heavens it doesn't end in a cliffhanger.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

ILLUMINATION NIGHT by Alice Hoffman


Alice Hoffman seems to like misfits. This book has both an outrageously tall man, Eddie, and a 4-year-old boy, Simon, who is not growing at the normal rate. The little boy's parents are Andre, who restores motorcycles, and Vonny, a potter. Next door, Jody, a headstrong teenager, has moved in with her grandmother, Elizabeth Renny, who has recently acted on her belief that she can fly. Oddly enough, Elizabeth's and Jody's cohabitation is the best thing that could have happened to either of them. Jody develops a crush on Andre, of which he's fully aware, and Vonny develops agoraphobia and is afraid to leave her house. Vonny's disorder is a mixed bag for Andre, as he can't decide whether to bask in Vonny's dependence on him or to make an effort to help her overcome it. It also has mixed results with Simon, who suddenly starts getting taller as Vonny has to relinquish some of her over-protectiveness. After toying with a series of boys her own age in order to make Andre jealous, Jody falls for "the giant," who avoids being seen during the daytime. His life has some parallels, in fact, with Vonny's, as they are both restricted in their contact with the outside world but due to very different types of fear. A tragedy befalls this island community, and Simon, who has been heretofore shielded from the word "death," suddenly has to bear a very heavy burden of guilt and grief, especially for such a young child. I would say, though, that fear—of the dark, of ridicule, of abandonment—is the predominant theme here. There are many ways to deal with it—repress it, outgrow it, or seek help to conquer it.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

SECOND NATURE by Alice Hoffman



A story of a boy raised by wolves? Only Alice Hoffman can pull that off. And the story is really about the man after he rejoins civilization. Uncommunicative and possibly violent, Stephen is handcuffed for his trip from the hospital's psych ward to the state mental hospital, when Robin impulsively hoodwinks his guards and whisks him to her home. Word slowly leaks out about the man, and guess who gets the blame when a teenage girl turns up dead, her throat neatly slit? In the meantime, though, Robin has fallen in love with him. Now Stephen is torn between his love/lust for Robin and his desperate need to get back into the wild. This would be a much better book if it weren't so unfailingly predictable, but I was still curious enough to find out how things would ultimately play out. My take on this was that we all tend to fear that which we don't understand, and even the strongest relationship is susceptible to doubt and mistrust when the pressures and prejudices of the outside world start closing in.

Monday, November 21, 2011

FORTUNE'S DAUGHTER by Alice Hoffman



Lila is reading tea leaves for a living when she meets Rae, a single mother-to-be. Rae is about the age that Lila's daughter would be and awakens Lila's desire to meet the daughter she gave up for adoption. Now Lila is married to Richard, who is unaware of the daughter and is frustrated and hurt by Lila's sudden mysterious trip back east. Meanwhile, Rae needs a birthing coach to stand in for her double-crossing boyfriend Jessup, and Richard may as well step in while Lila is gone. There's plenty of melodrama to go around, and eventually it seems that everyone comes full circle. I enjoyed reading this book, but I don't think it really breaks any new ground. Plus, both women annoyed me somewhat. Lila is keeping a secret from her husband for no reason that I can see. He already knows that she attempted suicide, and I think that's more shameful than bearing a child at 18 years old. And Rae repeatedly sacrifices her self-respect to let Jessup back into her life. I wonder if the author intended to depict these women as courageous, since they appear to me to be succumbing to their respective weaknesses.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

THE MASTER by Colm Toibin

The term "Jamesian" has been used to refer to anything related to William James, philosopher/psychologist, or to things related to his brother, author Henry James. I would have liked Toibin to have explored more fully the relationship between these two brilliant men, but instead he focused on Henry James and his other relationships. He depicts James as a conflicted homosexual who attracts women as well, one of whom may have committed suicide over him. Toibin writes in a Jamesian style here—stilted and formal. In fact, I think the book would have been more effective if it had been written in first person. However, the third person narrative has one distinct advantage: it further imitates James's style by using real people—in this case, Henry James himself—as inspiration for fiction. Several of James's friends recognized themselves in his novels and were more likely to feel flattered than offended, even if their doppelganger was an unsavory character. To me, though, this period in James's life, between the huge failure of his play Guy Domville and the publishing of his novels The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl, is quite boring. Toibin does describe the events that James may have seized for the plots of his later novels, but nothing much at all happened in this time period, except that he bought an old house in Rye, where his drunken staff members embarrassed him in front of his occasional guests. In fact, the major events, particularly the deaths of friends and family, did not occur during this time period and are presented as retrospective ruminations, triggered by various accusations and implications. Henry James seemed to have a lot of friends and was supposed to have been very good company, but his reticence with regard to his relationships, both male and female, made him seem standoffish, self-centered, and quite dull.

Monday, November 14, 2011

AUTHOR, AUTHOR by David Lodge



I'm not a huge fan of Henry James, but David Lodge does a fair job of channeling him in this somewhat fictionalized bio, written in a formal, Jamesian style. It focuses mainly on two aspects of James's life—his failed attempts as a playwright and his friendship with George Du Maurier, a more successful but less gifted writer. James struggled between good will toward his friend and jealousy of Du Maurier's popularity. He could never have imagined that The Portrait of a Lady and The Wings of the Dove would be made into major motion pictures later in the twentieth century. Lodge characterizes James as a celibate homosexual, married to his art, who never realized commercial success during his lifetime. On the other hand, although Du Maurier created the character Svengali whose name has entered the lexicon, his work has not stood the test of time, but his granddaughter Daphne's has. There are several other well-known writers of the period, including Edith Wharton, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and H.G. Wells, who peripherally figure into James' life. It was especially interesting to me, though, that Du Maurier's grandchildren by his daughter Sylvia were the boys who inspired J.M. Barrie to write Peter Pan. Also, James's agent's daughter married Rudyard Kipling. What a small, interconnected, and talented world Henry James inhabited.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

UNBROKEN by Laura Hillenbrand



Louis Zamperini was a juvenile delinquent in Torrance, California, before he discovered running, at the behest of his track-star brother, in the 1930s. Louie gained some notoriety as an Olympic athlete and then became a bombardier in the Pacific during WWII. His plane went down some 2000 miles east of Japan, and he and the pilot survived 47 days of starvation, thirst, exposure, and shark attacks in a poorly equipped, bullet-ridden inflatable raft. Louie's resourcefulness in creating mischief was channeled toward survival—capturing food and rainwater, dodging bullets, warding off sharks—as they drifted toward land. Impossible as it may seem, the worst was yet to come. The Japanese had a reputation for extreme brutality in the treatment of POWs, and the truth exceeded even the most horrible rumors. Louie's defiance did not serve him well in the various prison camps where he landed, but the conditions were horrific and the beatings severe for all the POWs there. Reading page after page of this became somewhat of a challenge for me, as Louie's situation became more and more unimaginably gruesome. His survival is, of course, a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, but I was even more amazed at the ability of Louie's body to recover from so much physical abuse, some of which was self-inflicted. The photos, particularly those of Louie's crew and friends who did not survive, are gems that I lingered over, contemplating who they were and how their families suffered unfathomable grief and in many cases the torturous uncertainty that accompanied the disappearance of a loved one whose fate and whereabouts were unknown.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

THE SUBMISSION by Amy Waldman




A hand-picked jury is debating the merits of the various submissions to a design contest for a memorial at ground zero. The jury does not know the identities of the entrants. Claire, whose husband was killed in the 9/11 attacks, lobbies for "the garden" and wins over the majority. The jurists are thrown into a tailspin, however, when they learn that the winner's name is Mohammed Khan—obviously a Muslim. Someone leaks this juicy tidbit to the press before the official announcement, and political bedlam ensues. The author treats this controversy with the seriousness that it deserves and posits two sides to a moral dilemma with no perfect solution. My favorite line is the book is this quotation from a music executive: "'It just makes me uncomfortable, and being uncomfortable makes me even more uncomfortable.'" This perfectly describes my feeling about the situation. We all love that American stands for freedom, but our gut feeling is that having a Muslim-built memorial for a site destroyed by Quran-quoting terrorists is a recipe for disaster. Is the memorial really a martyr's paradise? Such was not Khan's intent, but his motives are not clear to the public, because he's not talking. Born in Virginia, he's indignant that his lineage has caused his allegiance to be called into question. From the public's perspective, he's an enigma, but he's really just too proud to buckle to the scrutiny he deems unfair. Claire, for all her high-minded initial support of Khan, begins to vacillate when a loathsome reporter plants a seed of doubt about Khan's political leanings. The reporter's lack of ethics and her success in duping Claire made me angry. I wanted there to be some non-Muslim who supported him unequivocally. Alas, Khan's egotism and intransigence ensure that even American Muslims ultimately abandon his cause. I love the title and all of its possible meanings. There's a comment in the book that Islam is submission, but isn't all religion submission to a higher power? Then there's also submission to public opinion, to emotion, to ambition, to political pressure—all of which come into play here. My only criticism would be that we never get close enough to Claire or Khan to experience their inner turmoil. The author brings focus more to ourselves and our own principles, and how we as a country and as individuals respond to this type of polarizing argument.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND by Helen Simonson

Predictable and sappy though it may be, I still found this book more enjoyable than most of that ilk. I love the name Pettigrew in this book, because it sounds so much like "pedigree." The main character, a retired major, is haughty and decorous, while at the same time striving to prove that being a member of polite society does not necessarily imply bigotry. If only the same could be said for the other members of his club, including the vicar and his wife. Major Pettigrew is such a winsome man, even though he bristles when some plebe addresses him as "Mr.," that I felt his book needed a sequel. He and Mrs. Ali, a Pakistani shopkeeper, have both lost their spouses and find that they share an appreciation for Kipling. As their bond deepens, their respective family issues complicate their lives and their relationship. Pettigrew's grown son Roger begins to doubt that his father has full command of his faculties. Roger has his father's sense of propriety but not his warmth, practicality, and tolerance. Mrs. Ali's nephew, whom Mrs. Ali is grooming to take over her shop, has fathered a son, but he is conflicted about how to remedy the situation in conjunction with his Islamic faith. The community, however, is even more of a problem, seeing in the budding relationship a sign of the times that needs to be held off as long as possible. Major Pettigrew delivers some snappy retorts and surprises himself, I believe, with his capacity to withstand disapproval. He shows courage in the face of danger, both the life-threatening kind and the life-stifling kind.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS by Rebecca Skloot


Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. Her doctor at Johns Hopkins harvested some of her cancerous cells so that they could perhaps be grown and studied in a culture medium. They not only survived outside of her body, they thrived and eventually seeped into thousands of cultures worldwide, contaminating decades of research. Still, they performed an invaluable service to medicine and were subjected to a vast range of studies, helping to develop a wide array of cures and vaccines. This book covers not only the many medical advances made possible by Henrietta Lacks' cancer cells but also the lives of her descendants, who did not know about their mother's unwitting contribution to science until twenty-something years after her death. Then their emotions ran the gamut from indignation to perplexity to astonishment. Their lack of education with regard to cellular biology led to all sorts of misunderstandings as to whether their mother was in some way still alive or could perhaps be cloned. Skloot interweaves the family story with the science story, and I would expect that most readers would have a clear preference for one over the other. Being the geek that I am, I preferred the science story, with all its misconceptions about the effects of lead and radium, as well as its victories with polio and hepatitis B. Others will prefer the more personal story, with its own set of misconceptions and victories, including the author's persistence in finally gaining the trust of Henrietta's children. In some ways they are lost souls, battling poverty, racism, poor healthcare, and, worst of all, the loss of their mother at too young an age.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET by Jamie Ford


Henry Lee's parents insisted that he speak only English but also required that he wear a button bearing the words "I am Chinese." At first Henry (and I) found this puzzling, but in the days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, being mistaken for Japanese could have dire consequences. Henry was bullied and mocked at his all-Caucasian school in Seattle but eventually found solace in the company of a girl named Keiko from Japantown. Separated after Keiko's family was sent to an internment camp, Henry and Keiko endeavored to stay in touch, despite the fact that Henry's father was livid over this relationship. Japan was as much China's enemy as it was the U.S.'s during WWII. Now it's the 1980s. Henry's wife Ethel has succumbed to cancer, and, observing parallels between his relationship with his own father, Henry is trying to mend his relationship with his son. The narrative swings back and forth between the 1940s and the 1980s, and the 1940s sections are teeming with jazz music that provides a melancholy backdrop for the abandoned streets of Japantown. However, the prose is not special, and, if it weren't for the slices of history embedded in the story, it would be just another sappy novel with a predictable plot and ending.

Monday, October 10, 2011

THE LOVE WIFE by Gish Jen


Carnegie Wong doesn't speak Chinese, his mother having raised him to be as American as possible. He and his wife Janie, dubbed Blondie by her Chinese mother-in-law, have three children. Lizzy, a foundling of unknown Asian descent ("soup du jour") is a rebellious teenager. Wendy is 9 and was adopted from China. Bailey is Blondie and Carnegie's infant biological son who is miraculously as blond as his mother. When Carnegie's mother dies, her unofficial will requires that a female relative, Lan, be brought over from China to live with the family. Her presence upsets the blended balance that has heretofore existed in the Wong household. I had two big problems with the book. One is that I did not like Lan, who hits the pet goat with a pail and almost scalds Bailey with too hot soup and bath water. I fully understand that my dislike of her is cultural. Freedom is a foreign concept to her. What she really appreciates is status, and her perception of her role in the family is skewed, partly by her separate living space, intended to provide privacy, and partly by her duties as nanny. Secondly, the book showcases every member of the family, except Bailey, as a first-person narrator, in snippets of varying length. This device annoyed me, requiring me to constantly double-back to double-check who is talking. Plus, each narrator often quotes other family members, adding another layer of confusion. I felt as though I were reading a transcript of a panel discussion or an unnatural dinner conversation.

Friday, October 7, 2011

HEAT WAVE by Penelope Lively


The author may be "Lively," but the book is very subdued. One theme that runs through this novel is that history repeats itself. In this case, it's like mother, like daughter. Pauline's affable husband Harry had a wandering eye and felt that his affairs were inevitable. The same is true of daughter Teresa, whose husband Maurice has become involved with his editor's girlfriend. Since Pauline and Teresa are next-door neighbors in an English country estate, Pauline is aware of Maurice's infidelity before Teresa is. Jealousy can eat you alive, and Pauline knows this firsthand. However, she still holds a grudge against the woman who first voiced the opinion that Harry was cheating on her. To tell Teresa or not to tell her, that is the question. As Maurice's lies and excuses become less and less plausible, even to Teresa, the tension among the 3 main characters becomes palpable. Another interesting subplot is that Pauline is copyediting a fanciful novel that involves a cheating lothario and finds herself captivated by a story that's unlikely to sell well. She doesn't pull any punches about the book's chances, as she becomes the author's sounding board for his own marital woes. In fact, she dishes out no-nonsense advice to him with aplomb but is stifled in her attempt to warn her own daughter not to waste a chunk of her life in misery. Unfortunately, just as Pauline was devastated to have to give up and give up on Harry, Teresa is so besotted with Maurice that we know she's willing to pay almost any price for his company.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

THE FRIDAY NIGHT KNITTING CLUB by Kate Jacobs


Several women told me that they were disappointed in this book, and I have to agree. Nicholas Sparks readers should enjoy it, because it's a predictable tearjerker. I have to say, though, that the characters—all women except James (Georgia's ex-boyfriend and father of her daughter Dakota)—are the backbone of this story, not the sappy plot. It's especially interesting how the women pair off—not in a sexual way, of course. Georgia reunites with her back-stabbing high school friend Cathy, now calling herself Cat, and married to a wealthy, neglectful husband. Darwin (a woman) and Lucie make an unlikely pair as Lucie prepares to give birth. There also seem to be a lot of estranged male partners, some of whom eventually reconcile with their long-suffering women. The glue to the story, though, is knitting, which seems to be a metaphor for a lot of things—patience, patching up mistakes, putting pieces together, yada, yada, yada. I don't knit, and this book didn't particularly inspire me to start.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A BAD DAY'S WORK by Nora McFarland


Lilly Hawkins is a shooter—a videographer for a Bakersfield TV station—who has apparently committed a rash of unfortunate errors recently. Her latest is the worst. Her boss threatens to fire her if she can't get some footage from a murder scene, and she jeopardizes the integrity of the crime scene in order to get the shots. The precious tape, however, turns out to be blank. Certainly, her rival, David, could have it in for her and is sabotaging her work somehow. Or perhaps Rod, the smooth anchorman is duplicitous. When a couple of corrupt cops rough her up in order to get her to give them the tape, which she doesn't believe exists, she doesn't know whom to trust and turns to Uncle Bud. He's a kick—resourceful and definitely in Lilly's corner but not exactly reliable. All in all, Lilly is as transparent as glass, but she's surrounded by people who aren't always what they seem. Well, OK, gang members are usually not a good thing. The author is a friend of a friend's daughter, and my expectations were low. However, I found this book to be funny and suspenseful, with a protagonist worth rooting for. Beach season may be over for this year, but there's no reason not to enjoy this one, wrapped in a blanket in front of a fireplace.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

MINE ARE SPECTACULAR! by Janice Kaplan and Lynn Schnurnberger


Perhaps I was overly influenced by the fact that this book is a collaboration. It has some very clever dialog, but somehow the humor seemed forced to me, as though the two authors spent too much time trying out various witticisms on each other. I enjoy some chick lit, but some just seems superficial and over-the-top. This book falls into the latter category. The boyfriends are all rich and handsome, and the women are smart, successful, and beautiful. It's all just a little too Sex in the City for my tastes. Sara is a teacher engaged to Bradford, who doesn't seem to have any particularly redeeming qualities, but Sara loves him, and at least he's not already married. Then Sara's errant ex-husband James returns from Patagonia (!), and things get complicated. Actually, I was rooting for Kirk, who plays a doctor on a daytime soap and coincidentally provides charm and banter as Sara's cohost on a TV cooking show. (There's of course the tired joke about playing a doctor on TV when Sara's friend Berni goes into labor.) Sara's BFF Kate is a dermatologist who gives the medical profession a bad name, if you ask me. She certainly doesn't exude intelligence or a sense of responsibility, or common sense, for that matter. Kirk at least gets points for a soothing bedside manner.

Monday, October 3, 2011

A IS FOR ALIBI by Sue Grafton


I've heard so much about Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone series that I decided to give A Is for Alibi a try. I thought that this series might be a bit like Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series, but "a bit" is about the extent of similarity between the two. Both have female protagonists, and both Kinsey and Stephanie are trying to solve mysteries. However, Kinsey is a well-respected, serious sleuth, and Stephanie is a hilarious bumbler. Stephanie has no qualms about mixing sex with work, but at least in this first volume, Kinsey recognizes the difficulty of trying to be objective when her paramour is a suspect. Nikki Fife has paid her debt to society with 8 years behind bars for the murder of her husband and has hired Kinsey to find out who really did it. (Is anyone serving time for murder paroled after 8 years?) Both series are of the light fiction variety, and both are enjoyable in a mindless way. I still prefer Stephanie, but I know her better. Kinsey may grow on me.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen


I've always thought that good writing makes a book better but not necessarily good. In this case, however, I didn't find the story or the characters particularly compelling, but I kept reading to see what other tricks of the written word Franzen had up his sleeve. The first chapter hooked me completely, and, after that, there were just enough LOL moments to make it worthwhile. Patty and Walter Bergland live in a gentrified neighborhood in St. Paul with their perfect daughter, Jessica, and perfect son, Joey—both teenagers. Well, Joey is perfect up until the moment he decides to move in with his girlfriend, Connie, who lives with her mom and her mom's boyfriend. This event rocks Patty's world, and then we read her therapeutic autobiography, which, I might add, eventually falls into the wrong hands. Patty, a former college basketball star, is self-indulgent and depressed, not to mention unfaithful to her saint of a husband. She's always had a thing for Richard, Walter's former roommate, but it was difficult for me to see what either man found attractive in her. Some sections of the book I found to be just too wearing, particularly the coverage of Patty's relationship with the self-destructive Eliza. Walter's life is infinitely more interesting, as he becomes involved with a coal mining operation in order to reclaim the land eventually for a bird sanctuary—or something like that. His favorite cause, though, is zero population growth, and Walter fires shots at the Pope, even while contemplating making a baby with his young assistant, Lalitha. In one particularly amusing scene, Walter, Lalitha, and Jessica are brainstorming to come up with a name for their ZPG group, and Franzen's list of options is a scream. My favorite is "All Children Left Behind." Franzen makes the point that people love America for either money or freedom, and anyone who doesn't have money is more likely to relish various personal freedoms, even if they're harmful to the planet.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER by Tom Franklin


Larry Ott has been a pariah in his Mississippi hometown since he was a teenager. He had a date with Cindy Walker to go to a drive-in movie, and she vanished that night. Since there was no evidence and no body, there was no arrest, but Larry, as the chief suspect, has endured ostracism for 25 years. Now another girl has gone missing, and the scrutiny of Larry intensifies, until someone takes matters into his own hands and fires a bullet into Larry's chest. While Larry is in ICU, the local sheriff concludes that Larry attempted suicide. Silas Jones is now the town constable, and he knows better. He and Larry became childhood friends, because Silas and his single mother were living in a ramshackle cabin on Larry's family property. Larry is white, and Silas is black, and for some reason Silas has not made any effort to clear Larry's good name. It's obvious early in the book who tried to take Larry out, but the real story here is the relationship between two men that has gone sour and why. Our sympathies lie mainly with Larry, whose solitary existence is interrupted only by meanness on the part of his neighbors. He's not even welcome at church. He sells off his land, little by little, to scrape by, metaphorically chipping off pieces of himself until nothing is left. Silas, on the other hand, with his Ole Miss education and EMT girlfriend, has overcome the fetters of early poverty to become a respected member of the community. Larry's shining moment from the past was a Halloween party, for which he wore the same scary mask that his would-be killer wears. Silas, though, is really the one with something to hide. An unsettling revelation makes his secret even more of a burden, perhaps giving him the impetus to come clean.

Friday, September 16, 2011

I DON'T KNOW HOW SHE DOES IT by Allison Pearson


This novel, now a movie, is a poor knockoff of Bridget Jones's Diary, complete with clever emails and repetitive notes to self. However, this novel's heroine, and I use the term loosely, lacks not only Bridget's warmth but also the ability to laugh at herself. Kate Reddy is an investment banker with two kids and a husband, and her strident excuses for not having enough time for them just grated on my nerves. She envies the stay-at-home moms who go out of their way to make her feel guilty, but at the same time she knows that her job is where she finds her fulfillment. She's jealous of the relationship her nanny, Paula, has with her children, while at the same time realizing her total dependence on Paula. The bottom line is that Kate is weak. Everyone takes advantage of her—her boss, her nanny, her decrepit housekeeper, and especially her children, since she caves in to their ever-changing whims. It's no wonder that she can't catch up—on sleep, on what's happening in her daughter's school, on keeping her marriage intact. Her long suffering architect husband doesn't have enough clout to persuade Kate that she needs to reevaluate her priorities and stop wasting energy on the wrong things. For example, why on earth is she wasting time trying to pass off various foodstuffs as homemade? To me, this book was more infuriating than funny, because I know that there are many Kates out there, putting the emphasis on form rather than function.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

THE DYING ANIMAL by Philip Roth


Once again, the sex-obsessed Philip Roth doesn't disappoint. Still, the man has a way with words, whether he's giving his protagonist's cynical views on marriage ("…like priests going into the church: they take the vow of chastity….") or describing his lover Consuela's "aggressive yielding." David Kepesh is a 70-year-old divorced college professor who also has regular TV and NPR spots. Thanks in part to his celebrity, he is able to strike up an affair with a female student at the end of every term. Consuela, however, becomes his obsession, long after their break-up. His son Kenny can't bear to repeat his father's sin of leaving their family, even though he's miserable in his own marriage. The irony of Kenny's martyrdom is one of the more interesting subplots. He is leading a double life, keeping his marriage intact but at the same time cozying up to his mistress's parents. Roth's female characters are seldom more than sex objects or featureless wives, but in this novel, Consuela and David both become infinitely more human at the end.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB by Karen Joy Fowler


I decided to read three "club" books, and this one was better than The Friday Night Knitting Club but not as good as The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It would have been helpful if I had just read all six Jane Austen novels, as I'm sure that the characters in this novel correspond to or behave like some of hers. Although I've probably read half of them, I certainly don't remember them in enough detail to understand any allusions that may have been present. (I have, however, seen three movie versions of Pride and Prejudice, so at least I wasn't too lost on that one.) The characters are mostly female (no surprise there), but the book club does have one male member, Grigg, who dives right in with a brand new set of Austen's complete works but is primarily a science fiction aficionado. The other members are Jocelyn, the club originator, whom Grigg has a crush on; Bernadette, the oldest, who is between husbands; Sylvia, whose husband has left her for a younger woman; Sylvia's daughter Allegra, a lesbian whose relationship has recently ended; and Prudie, the youngest, who is happily married but still coping with the residual pain of an unhappy childhood. The funniest scene is at a benefit dinner where Bernadette tells an embellished story of her life to shut up a pompous author seated at their table. In typical Jane Austen fashion, everyone's love life is wrapped up to everyone's, including the reader's, satisfaction at the end.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

THE POWER OF ONE by Bryce Courtenay


I have been reluctant to read this book, because I expected it to be preachy with an Ayn Rand individualism message. I wasn't far off, but the tone is chatty rather than portentous, and that makes the message a little easier to digest. I rather enjoyed the first part of the book, where Peekay (a name he gives himself so that he never forgets an insulting nickname) is a young, tortured English boy in a South African prep school. After he becomes an accomplished pianist, botanist, geologist, pugilist, reformist, linguist, etc., the book loses its punch, and I began to lose interest. The title obviously refers to a person who achieves success by means of his own grit, determination, and resources. However, two people, in separate incidences, give their lives in order to save Peekay's, so that he gets by with more than a little help from his friends, as he takes one too many unnecessary risks. Plus, at over 500 pages, the length of this book is somewhat daunting and not really necessary, according to me. What I did like, though, was the history lesson. The book takes place mostly in the 1940s, and the taking of sides in South Africa for and against Hitler was interesting. The Boers disliked the Brits; therefore, they liked Hitler, because the Brits hated Hitler, or something like that. Ironically, Peekay's very good friend and mentor, Doc, is an ex-pat German and is arrested on trumped-up charges of being a Nazi spy. Doc has to wait out the war in prison, albeit with much more freedom than his fellow inmates. I think there is supposed to be some humor herein, but I had trouble finding any, although the treatment of religion qualifies. Like Ayn Rand, Bryce Courtenay has a good bit to say about born-again Christians, and none of it is good. Peekay's mother tells him that eventually God will stop trying to save him, and Peekay can only hope that his mother will follow God's lead.

Monday, September 12, 2011

SEMI-TOUGH by Dan Jenkins


I had wanted to read this book because I loved the movie with Burt Reynolds, Kris Kristofferson, and Jill Clayburgh. It was a mistake, though, for several reasons. For one thing, the plot was completely different from the movie. In fact, there really isn't that much plot at all in the book. Secondly, there's so much political incorrectness that it wasn't just irreverent; it was downright offensive. Billy Clyde Puckett, Barbara Jane Bookman, and Shake Tiller have been friends since childhood. Billy Clyde and Shake are players for the NY Giants, in L.A. to play in the Super Bowl. Shake and Barbara Jane have been a couple forever, and Billy Clyde always has a flavor-of-the-month girlfriend. Billy Clyde has a book deal, and he's chronicling the week leading up to the Super Bowl. I know that this novel was published in 1972, and I'm willing to cut it some slack because of that, but the derogatory language and hateful putdowns get a little old after a while. And getting plastered the night before walking on the field for the Super Bowl? Really? I can't imagine the Manning brothers doing this, and the quarterback for the Giants in the book is named Hose Manning—after Archie, maybe? If the 1970s were about excess, then I guess this book hits the mark, but now it just seems shallow and gross. I have in my library Dan Jenkins' Rude Behavior, published in 1998, one of several follow-ups to Semi-Tough. I can't decide if I should read it to see if it's funny in a more palatable way or if I should just chuck it.

Friday, September 9, 2011

ELEANOR RIGBY by Douglas Coupland


Liz Dunn is an overweight, mousy, lonely woman (hence the title) with a secret in her past that not even her siblings know about. She had a son when she was 16, following a school trip to Rome. The 20-something-year-old son, Jeremy, after surviving a string of unpleasant foster homes, turns up in a hospital with Liz's contact info on his MedicAlert bracelet. Jeremy then moves in with Liz, shocking her family and coworkers. It goes without saying that Jeremy gives Liz a new lease on life, just as his is beginning to deteriorate, due to MS. Liz doesn't remember the details of Jeremy's conception, presumably at a drunken orgy, but all is eventually revealed with a satisfying, though farfetched, conclusion. My question is this: Why is Liz so lonely? She may be unattractive, but she's not particularly socially inept, she has a good job, and she's certainly not basking in the pleasures of solitude. Why does it take a catalyst like Jeremy to get her to take an interest in life? What's the significance of the fact that both Jeremy and Liz can sing a song backwards? Then there are 2 other events that puzzled me. As a child, Liz discovered the dead body of a man dressed and made up as a woman. What impact did this supposedly have on her? Did it change her perspective on death? Or on life? Or on her life in particular by perhaps reinforcing dissatisfaction with her body, as the corpse appeared to be dissatisfied with his gender? Or none of the above. Also, an object that appears to be a meteorite drops into her path and eventually causes an international incident. Ultimately and ironically, the object shortens her life, just as she is beginning to participate.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

ALL FAMILIES ARE PSYCHOTIC by Douglas Coupland


All families may not be psychotic, but the one in this book certainly is. Janet is 65 years old and close to her two messed-up sons, Wade and Bryan, but distant from her well-adjusted astronaut daughter, Sarah. Janet took thalidomide while pregnant with Sarah, and consequently Sarah was born with only one hand. The assorted family members, including Janet's ex-husband Ted and his trophy wife Nickie, have congregated in Florida for Sarah's first launch into space. The men become involved in a disastrous caper to sell the letter that Prince William left on his mother's casket to a shady Bahamian. Meanwhile, Bryan's girlfriend Shw (that's right—no vowels), Janet, and Nickie all witness a restaurant holdup, and, in the process, discover that Shw is selling her and Bryan's unborn baby. This would all be pretty funny if it weren't for the fact that Janet, Nickie, and Wade are HIV-positive. Wade infected both women—his stepmother Nickie in the usual way and his mother accidentally when a bullet, fired by his father, passed through him on its way to Janet. Either the author has stepped over a line here in writing a whimsical novel about people with a serious disease, or he has buried a message somewhere. I realized at the end of the novel that HIV for these characters is another word for nothing left to lose.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

THE WIDOWER'S TALE by Julia Glass



And what a tale it is. Percy Darling, the widower in question, is the first-person narrator for about a quarter of the chapters, and that's sufficient, because his erudite language would be exhausting to read if it ran all the way through. The book also focuses on the lives of three other guys—Robert (Percy's grandson), Celestino (a Guatemalan illegal immigrant), and Ira (a gay pre-school teacher). If you don't like one person's story, you may like another's, but I became absorbed in all of them, and they're intertwined in an uncomplicated way. Percy, whose wife drowned mysteriously in her 30s, raised two daughters, now grown. The elder, Clover, is a mess, having abandoned her husband and children and now wanting them back, or at least the children. The younger, Trudy, is a busy oncologist, married to a divorce counselor, and mother of Robert. Robert is a Harvard undergrad and becomes tangentially involved with his roommate's band of misguided environmental zealots/vandals. Here are the big questions that grabbed my attention: Will Percy's girlfriend get the lump in her breast checked out? Will Robert wise up or jeopardize his future? Will Clover continue with her unrealistic mission to regain custody? There's no great mystery here but plenty of tantalizing nuggets, and I wanted to see how they shook out. I found Ira and Celestino as satellites sort of orbiting Percy and his fascinating family. (Celestino = celestial?) And Percy is the "darling" of this novel, who, despite his aloofness, is the glue that keeps it all together. He's also a paragon of common sense, unhampered by delusions, while everyone else has his or her head buried in the proverbial sand.

Friday, August 26, 2011

A KISS BEFORE DYING by Ira Levin



This 1950s thriller opens with a college couple's conversation about their unwanted pregnancy. Her name is Dorrie; his is not revealed until much later in the novel. Dorrie has a wealthy father who will surely disown her if she marries her lover and has his baby. Her lover feels that abortion is the only answer, since, really, what's the point of marrying a rich girl if her funds are cut off? In his mind, though, there is at least one other solution: kill the girl, make it look like a suicide, and move on. This scenario reminded me somewhat of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. Anyway, the manner in which our anti-hero elicits a suicide note from Dorrie is clever indeed, and he still has a few more tricks up his sleeve. So does the author. The most intriguing section in the book is when Dorrie's sister Ellen, never convinced that Dorrie's death was a suicide, starts digging into Dorrie's demise. She has just enough to go on to narrow her murder suspects down to two. Since we still don't know his name at this point, we fear for her safety as she pursues these two strangers. There are some very tense moments, and we discover his identity at the same moment that she does. He's a twisted sociopath, emboldened by his horrifying success, who will now stop at nothing to achieve the social and financial status that he craves. The dialog and quandaries may be dated, but the suspense that Levin generates has not gone out of style.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

HOTEL DU LAC by Anita Brookner



Edith Hope is vacationing at a sedate Swiss hotel, waiting from some sort of scandal to die down. Does it have to do with her affair with a married man? She writes romance novels under a pseudonym and therefore remains anonymous to the other guests who are fans of her work but not opposed to voicing the occasional criticism. One gentleman there is on to her, and he strikes up a friendship with Edith, who is intrigued by a very wealthy mother/daughter pair. Another woman, with an eating disorder and a small dog to help disguise it, seeks out Edith's company also. For someone trying to keep to herself and complete her next novel, Edith is somewhat in demand and becomes privy to all sorts of gossip and liaisons. As it turns out, she is too distracted/dispressed to write anything but letters to her lover that she may or may not be mailing. This is one of those slow-moving, nuanced and very British novels, with a spinster heroine and a skeleton in the closet, which is not scandalous at all by American standards. Ultimately, Edith has a decision to make—return home and make amends for her past behavior, or seize an opportunity that's not all that appealing but has its advantages. A chance observation serves as a wake-up call, clarifying her options and helping her realize what is important to her. The book feels like it belongs on a live stage, with its confined setting and stifling group of characters, and was apparently adapted as a play for television.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

FAIR AND TENDER LADIES by Lee Smith



Like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, this book is constructed entirely of letters. However, in this case all the letters are written by the same person—Ivy Rowe. Many of the letters are addressed to Ivy's sister Silvaney and never mailed, and these are the most reflective and informative. I almost stopped reading after the first 10 pages, in which Ivy is an uneducated teenager in the early 1900s, and her spelling is atrocious. However, her grammar and spelling do improve as the book progresses. The title implies to me that the women in the novel are pampered and vacuous, but that is certainly not the case. Ivy is spunky and passionate, and eventually "ruint." She finally settles down with a good man after almost losing him in a mining accident but then strays during a midlife crisis that has tragic consequences. The book spans Ivy's entire life, and there are so many characters that I occasionally got mixed up. Some of them disappear for a while and then crop up again. No one is forgotten, so that closure is complete on all fronts. The characters also raise one another's children, as circumstances require, and I wondered if that was a common practice during the time period.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A WHISTLING WOMAN by Louise Shivers



Don’t confuse this book with A. S. Byatt's much longer novel of the same name. This one is a very quick read with language in the style of Tobacco Road. The characters in this book have a lot more sense, though, and deal with adversity in a very matter-of-fact and effective manner. In fact, the book lacks any major conflict. Georgeanna is a very likeable protagonist, and she efficiently resolves the disagreements with her mother Chaney and with John Fleeting. It's a nice story about a nice person, and sometimes that's OK. Plus, I found out that many barbecue joints are called "The Pig and Whistle" because pigs and whistling are both considered to be bad luck on a ship. Presumably when a sailor comes back to shore, he's ready to enjoy the very things that have been off-limits while at sea.

Monday, August 22, 2011

THE NEWS FROM PARAGUAY by Lily Tuck


This could have been a juicy, rousing historical novel, but it's not. Instead, it flits among a zillion characters, most of whom are not sufficiently fleshed out to render them memorable. The only ones I could really keep up with were Franco Lopez, who becomes Paraguay's diabolical dictator in the mid-1800s, his Irish pseudo-wife Ella Lynch, Franco's fat sisters Rafaela and Inocencia, and Franco and Ella's son Pancho. Their other sons (four?) were as indistinguishable as Franco's brothers, various military personnel, diplomats, and Ella's ladies-in-waiting. Reading this book ranks right up there with watching paint dry. Blinded by the gold National Book Award sticker on the cover, I had high expectations. Plus, I thought it would augment my next-to-non-existent body of knowledge about Paraguay. Now I at least know that Paraguay was warring with Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay at the same time that the U.S. was engaged in civil war. However, that nugget of information does not nearly suffice to make this a worthwhile read. I might have enjoyed a more straightforward fictional portrait of Ella. She certainly invites comparisons with that other influential South American woman, Eva Peron, in that she's aligned herself with a powerful man and shows some pluck. At one point, Ella accompanies Franco and Pancho to the front, and, in the midst of sweltering heat and muddy, swamp terrain, asks herself why she doesn't just return to Europe. Good question.

Friday, August 19, 2011

SPEAKING TRUTHS by Dayna Hester


Having just read Emma Donoghue's Room, I found myself reading another abduction story. In Dayna Hester's Speaking Truths, Landon, the narrator, is a teenager in a hoodie who cuts classes and feels like an outsider. His arrest after a drug deal ironically changes everything for the better. His fingerprints match up with that of a child abducted 8 years before, and now we know why he privately calls his abusive father "Bob." Though not well-adjusted by any means, Landon has managed to adapt to his situation, so much so that the reunion with his parents is uncomfortable, to say the least. They're no saints, either, but we come to realize that in many ways, even with their annoying quirks, they are just what Landon needs. His emotional trauma is so severe that he doesn't remember his abduction and at first doubts that it actually took place, since Bob has convinced him that Landon's parents abandoned him at a shelter. Gradually Landon's memories surface, sometimes at inopportune moments. Thus we get a very clear picture of his mixed feelings about Bob, as both abuser and protector. Another irony is that the second half of the book focuses largely on a trial. However, it is not Bob's trial, since he confesses to the kidnapping, but Landon's trial, because Bob has implicated him in the murder of K.C., another boy that was Bob's captive. The author ratchets up the suspense as we eagerly await Bob's intimidating presence in the courtroom and anticipate Landon's reaction, as well as the outcome. This was the only aspect of the book that I found to be a stretch. Would our justice system really go after a kidnap victim for a crime that was committed while he was 11 years old? Landon certainly is no Patty Hearst. I guess if there's a murder victim, there needs to be someone to blame, but Landon is the real victim here.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

ROOM by Emma Donoghue


Don’t read this book if you have a heart condition. No book has pumped this much adrenalin into my system since The Exorcist, and that was more than 30 years ago. It struck me as a fictionalized version of the Jaycee Dugard story, but actually the author was inspired by a different true story. Five-year-old Jack has seen only two people, other than those on TV, in his entire life—his mother and her abductor, Old Nick. Born in captivity, Jack has never been outside (the) Room, a heavily fortified shed in the maniac's backyard. His mother has remarkably managed to make Jack's life seem normal, at least to him, while she becomes increasingly more desperate, especially after Old Nick cuts off their power for a few days. This punishment reinforces for her the tightrope she walks between maintaining her sanity and making sure that Old Nick continues to provide them with the basics. Jack, on the other hand, is quite content with his few toys, including one made from eggshells, and his few books, all of which he can now read and mostly recite from memory. Jack is the reason that his mother perseveres, and one of the things she misses most is dentistry, having let her teeth fall into ruin before Jack was born. The prior neglect of her personal health is a telling indicator of just how vital a lifeline Jack has become for her. This loving, symbiotic relationship is not as stifling as it may sound, and the mother's ingenuity in providing a full life for her son is nothing short of heroic. Then one very harrowing event changes everything, but I won't spoil the suspense for you. I will say that the second half is much less intense, and that was just fine with me. I'd prefer not to stay revved up and sleepless like that for any longer than necessary.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

TO THE END OF THE LAND by David Grossman


Ora, Avram, and Ilan meet as children in an Israeli hospital. The poetic, artistic Avram loves Ora but thinks that Ilan deserves her more. Ora and Ilan marry and have two sons, the younger of which is really Avram's, conceived while Ora and Ilan were separated. Now the sons are grown, and Ora and Ilan have split up again. This time Adam, the older son, and Ilan have embarked on an extended trip to South America. Meanwhile, Ofer, the younger son, has suddenly reenlisted in the Israeli army just before he and his mother were scheduled to take off backpacking. Despondent and unwilling to wait at home for the seemingly inevitable news that her son has been killed in action, Ora coerces the now reclusive Avram, scarred both mentally and physically from the torture he endured as a POW, to take Ofer's place on the trip. The bulk of the novel takes place on the Israel Trail, with these two reconnecting, as Ora acquaints Avram with his son via tales of her family's trials and tribulations. Until now, Avram has steadfastly refused to have any contact with his biological son Ofer. There is more symbolism here than I can begin to describe or interpret. Words are one of the major players, as Avram is a writer of sorts, and Ora begins documenting her stories in a notebook so that she won't forget them. As it turns out, Avram may know his son solely through Ora's words. Another current that runs through the book is that of how our loved ones anchor us to life. Avram admits that he is drifting through life and sees Ofer as a motivation to live that he finds oppressive. Ilan, too, in an effort to avoid the tether of fatherhood, abandons his family shortly after Adam is born. Near the end of the book, Avram asks Ofer if in fact children do not provide a constant reason to get out of bed each day, and she responds, "Not always. Not all the time." The backpacking trip is the ultimate escape trip from the anchor of looming heartbreak. The dust jacket refers to this novel as an antiwar novel, and I did not really pick up on that aspect of it, but it definitely gives the reader a sense of how precarious life in Israel is, where even a bus ride is iffy, with the wary passengers inspecting one another to see if a suicide bomber might be among them. Perhaps this uncertainty and fragility of life partially explain why the men in the book are so reluctant to bond with their sons.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

THE MARCH by E. L. Doctorow


Now that I've lived in Georgia for 30 years, it's time I read a novel about General Sherman who cut a swath through the state, burning everything in his path and leaving us with a dearth of pre-Civil War mansions. This novel strikes a pretty even balance between military maneuvering and human interest stories, but Doctorow discards characters with about as much regard for them as Sherman had for the entourage of slaves that latched on to his army. Some characters die along the way, and some are just abandoned, their stories incomplete. Although the author takes several perspectives, not just Sherman's, the omniscient narrator is very dispassionate and even less concerned about the grief and plight of the characters than Sherman himself is. In one particularly memorable scene, an ex-slave photographs two men, one of whom is dead, so that the one still alive can deliver a photo to the dead man's loved ones. Yikes! The tone is not gory, even though a surgeon who is ahead of his time tends to Union and Confederate soldiers alike, nonchalantly hacking off a lot of limbs, for lack of a better option. I think Doctorow enjoys challenging his readers, not just with military strategy, which I did not follow at all, but also with a large and diverse cast of both black and white characters, and I found myself flipping back to previous chapters to confirm their pre-Sherman relationships—master/slave, half-siblings, etc. Unlikely pairings occur frequently among the hangers-on. Pearl, a beautiful teenage product of her slave mother and her white master, is reunited with her master's distraught wife, Mattie, whom she begins to call "step-ma'm," since she's not her mother, but she's married to her father.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

SOMEONE KNOWS MY NAME by Lawrence Hill


Aminata is an African girl in the late 1700s who is whisked away to the New World by slave traders. It soon becomes clear, in this first-person saga, that she is actually quite remarkable. She learns to read and write, performs midwife duties for blacks and whites alike, and masters three languages, all before she is 20. She has 2 big flaws, though. One is that she is too trusting and thus sets herself up for betrayal time and again. Secondly, she has an obsession with returning to her village in Africa, regardless of the fact that she has no family there. We know from the outset that she spends her final days in England, assisting the abolitionists in Parliament to end the slave trade, if not slavery itself. There's a history less here, if you can separate fact from fiction. After the Revolutionary War, the British rewarded Black Loyalists in the U.S. with transport to Canada, then later to a new settlement in Sierra Leone. Aminata is a part of this migration—swept along from New York to Shelburne, Nova Scotia, to Halifax, and finally back to Africa. Her story, though, is more about loss than adventure. Her husband Chekura and she are separated for years at a time, and then when we think they'll finally have some peace together, fate steps in and deals them yet another devastating blow. Her two children, one born into slavery and sold, the other born free and abducted, are never far from her thoughts and serve as constant reminders that nothing is constant or predictable for Africans in the New World. Aminata is always an anomaly, set off first by her education and then later by the fact that she is one of the dwindling few actually born in Africa. She is a survivor, but this book is relentlessly sad, and I think that the author could have celebrated Aminata's triumphs to give us an occasional break. Even the happy moments at the end are tainted with the sense of a life completed but never enjoyed. She doesn't come across as spunky but seems to trudge from one hopeless setting to another, mired in the past and never hopeful for the future nor comforted by the legacy of progress, slight as it may have been, that she leaves in her wake.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

ONE DAY by David Nicholls


I thought that this book was supposed to be funny, but it didn't strike me that way. In fact, to me, it was immensely sad, about two people who obviously love each other and stay in touch for years but keep making choices that stymie their opportunities to have a romantic relationship. The book's gimmick is that each chapter takes place on July 15, a year later than the previous chapter, starting with 1988. I found this structure to be choppy and not conducive to really burying myself in the lives of the two characters. Careful not to make too much happen on the same day of each year, the author gives us too many days that are either unpleasant or just plain boring. Even so, two very important events DO take place on July 15, and that's coincidence enough. Emma is a left-leaning, attractive woman with subzero self-confidence who aspires to change the world around her, or at least the world in her immediate vicinity. Dexter is a handsome, even "beautiful," man with a privileged background and alcoholic tendencies. In fact, he seems to be drunk on July 15 more often than not, so let's just elevate him to a full-blown alcoholic. His substance abuse leads to the downhill slide of his on-screen late-night TV career, while Emma struggles to find her life's calling, weighed down by her self-image and a very unfunny boyfriend who moonlights as a comedian. The big question is "will they" or "won't they" eventually get together, but this uncertainty wasn't enough for me.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

THE COOKBOOK COLLECTOR by Allegra Goodman


One reviewer described this novel as "abundantly delicious," and I couldn't agree more. When I read a book like this, it becomes the gold standard, and almost everything else pales in comparison. One chapter, which begins with the eating of a peach, is just the juiciest love scene ever but as chaste as the Jane Austen novel that apparently inspired this book. As the twentieth century draws to a close, two sisters with opposite personalities live in the Berkeley area. The older, Emily, is the brilliant originator of a dot-com startup. The younger, Jess, is a perennial flower-child student, involved with an environmentally holier-than-thou treehugger named Leon. Emily's boyfriend Jonathan has his own dot-com startup in the Boston area, so that their relationship is long-distance, with neither party willing to give up his/her company to move to the other coast. Although theirs would appear to be the perfect match otherwise, Jonathan lacks Emily's moral compass and is ruthless in his quest for market share. Jess, however, is the central character who finds part-time work in a bookstore, owned and operated by George, who made millions at Microsoft at a tender age, and now indulges his love of rare books and fine cuisine. Those two obsessions come together when he happens upon a collection of old, rare cookbooks. Jess signs on to help him catalog these books but is really more interested in the handwritten love notes, drawings, and menus that the now-deceased owner tucked in between the pages. I hungrily devoured and savored every word of this sumptuous, delectable novel, but I think the most appropriate adjective for it is "passionate"—passion for food, books, trees, success, whatever, but especially for a kindred spirit who at first appears to be anything but.

Monday, July 11, 2011

THE TRILOGY OF SWAMP HATTIE by Dennis M. Smith, Jr.



Dennis Smith and I were classmates in high school. Now I'm blogging about books, but he's actually writing books. His debut is The Trilogy of Swamp Hattie, a compilation of three books about an evil ghost. Now that there are no more new Harry Potter books on the horizon, Swamp Hattie can provide you with your supernatural fix. Dennis's books have elements of The Lord of the Rings and the original Star Wars movies, and, like both of those trilogies, the second Swamp Hattie book concludes with a dark cliffhanger. Swamp Hattie, "an evil ghost," has made it her mission to spread disaster and mayhem all around St. Augustine and beyond, but her tale is ultimately a fable of redemption---a sort of fairy tale. Some authors impress me with their thorough research, but every single line of these books rhymes with another line, and that's no small feat. Dennis is a pathologist and even finds rhymes for medical terms. With Chris Armstrong's vivid and intricate illustrations, these books are the sort that you'll want to pass along to your grandchildren.

I normally steer clear of works with heavy religious overtones, and there's a significant dose of spirituality here. However, I choose to interpret the roles of God and Satan, as depicted in these books, more as metaphors for good and evil. There is also a fair amount of violence but not any more than you would find in a Harry Potter book. I recommend reading the books aloud to get the full effect of, and an appreciation for, the rhyming.

The books make beautiful gifts or keepsakes, whether you choose the glossy hardbound Collector's Edition or the pocketsize paperback, and are available for purchase at http://swamphattie.com/. This colorful web site has contests and giveaways, plus more info on the books, the author ("Hattie's Daddy"), and the artist.

Friday, July 8, 2011

EINSTEIN'S DREAMS by Alan Lightman


What if time stood still? What if time ran fast for some people and slow for others? What if time ran backwards? What if time were not continuous? What if we knew the future? Would we try to derail it or resign ourselves to its inevitability? These are a few of the scenarios that Lightman proposes, ostensibly as Einstein's dreams while he was writing his paper on relativity. These various imaginings are delightful but devoid of characters and plot and therefore do not exactly constitute a novel in the usual sense, and, from a physics standpoint, I didn't get the point. There are a very few conversations between Einstein and Besso, his sounding board at the patent office, but these scenes are too infrequent. I loved the suggestion that Einstein denied many patent requests as impractical but sent back suggestions for overcoming the flaws to the submitter. My favorite vignette is one about a world in which people build their houses on stilts, because time moves slower at higher altitudes. This seems to be a quirky reverse take on Einstein's gravitational time dilation theory, which explains why the atomic clock in Greenwich, England runs slower than the one in Boulder, Colorado. Einstein's theory predates the invention of atomic clocks. Incredible.