Wednesday, January 26, 2011

DEAFENING by Frances Itani

The title may be Deafening, but the book is anything but. It's very quiet—too quiet. As we try to inhabit the life and mind of Grania, deaf since the age of five from scarlet fever, we imagine what it would be like not to know when someone is approaching from behind, or to know when the speaker has changed in a conversation. This book was just too slow-paced for me and the characters too one-dimensional. Grania and her hearing husband Jim seem to be without fault. More complex is Grania's sister Tress, who struggles with her emotions when her husband comes back from WWI disfigured and dysfunctional. Another interesting character is their mother, who postpones sending Grania to a school for the deaf as long as possible, while she battles her guilt over Grania's hearing loss and seeks a cure via specialists and spiritual quests. However, the author doesn't fully explore the inner conflicts of Tress or her mother, and we are left with a love story between two very nice people. Jim's story is more disturbing than Grania's, actually, as he becomes a stretcher bearer during the war and sees both friends and patients blown up inches away from him on a regular basis. His sections of the book are very moving reminders that the lives lost in wars are not just statistics. The most moving and ironic incident is Jim's wordless interaction with a German counterpart as they both struggle to rescue their wounded on the battlefield.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


If I wanted to read short stories, I'd pick up a short story collection, and that's what this is. Each chapter offers a telling glimpse into the personal life of one of the staffers, plus a neurotic reader, at a Rome-based English-language newspaper. Unlike Olive Kitteridge, in which Olive appears in every story, this book has no binding character, except the newspaper itself, which is struggling, like most print media news organizations. It seemed to me that the lives of the characters mirrored the downhill slide of the paper. There is some overlap among the stories, which may be enough for some readers, but I felt puzzled at the end of each one. Several of the stories involve rather bizarre romantic relationships or encounters, particularly when the CFO finds herself attracted to the man seated next to her on a plane, whom she happened to have fired recently. A couple of the women are desperate types, allowing themselves to be manipulated or, in one case, repeatedly dialing a man who made the mistake of kissing her once. To be fair, I have to admit that a couple of the men are fairly desperate, too, and even manipulated, as is the wannabe stringer in Cairo who finds himself at the mercy of a blustery guy who may be his competitor for the job. I can certainly understand why Christopher Buckley read this book twice. Somehow I want to revisit and remember these stories, embarrassing and unpleasant as some of them are, and yet at the same time I'm not sure I want to relive the urge to yank these misfits up by the collar and tell them to get a grip.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

ASYLUM by Patrick McGrath

The title has a double meaning. Most of the action takes place in a mental institution where the narrator, Peter Cleave, is a psychiatrist and administrator. Toward the end of the book he offers asylum, in the form of marriage, to Stella Raphael. Initially, Stella is the beautiful wife of Max, a deputy superintendent at the hospital, in line for the top job when the current chief steps down. Then Stella derails his career plans by running off with an escaped inmate, Edgar Stark. Though not exactly riveting, the plot moves along at a decent clip, and I was interested in finding out both Edgar's and Stella's fate. The tone of the narration, that of a mild-mannered, even-keel, but not quite objective psychiatrist, contrasts sharply with the lust and jealousy that absorb the two main characters.

Monday, January 10, 2011

DELIRIOUS by Daniel Palmer

Charlie Giles isn't sneaky. In fact, he's quite overt in his elimination of all obstacles in his path to the top of the high-tech world. He's ousted his business partner for using company money to fund his gambling habit, and he's fired his best quality engineer for leaking product security holes to the competition. Sounds like Mark Zuckerberg meets Julian Assange. As the flawed protagonist, Charlie isn't any more likeable than either of these two men. In fact, that would be my biggest complaint about the book is that I wasn't that concerned about Charlie's fate, but it's a thriller, after all, and character development is not the top priority. Since I'm a software developer myself, the subject matter also turned me off initially. I really prefer to read about a milieu that's not so mind-numbingly familiar, but this story is exotic in other ways. Charlie's brother, Joe, is a schizophrenic who struggles to maintain a semblance of normality. Their father, too, was schizophrenic, and now Charlie appears to be the victim either of a massive techno-conspiracy or the same mental health condition that plagues his brother, or, even more terrifying, a multiple-personality disorder. On some level, it reminded me of The Echo Maker by Richard Powers in which a man with a neurological disorder invents an outlandish conspiracy theory to explain his delusions. In this case, we assume that Charlie is ruthless but sane, and then doubt creeps in. The action is fast-paced, including a mental hospital breakout, a car submersion, and a wrong-way police chase. I may have guessed most aspects of the ending, but that just meant that I was racing to the end for confirmation.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


Kate Atkinson manages to keep a lot of balls in the air in this literary thriller full of preposterous coincidences. This is her third book featuring Jackson Brodie, a former policeman and PI, who notes that "a coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen." Thanks to the wreck of a train that he shouldn't have been on, Jackson is reunited with Inspector Louise Monroe, and although they have a barely suppressed hankering for each other, they're both married to someone else. Thrown into the mix is Reggie, a resourceful teenage girl who works as a mother's helper to Dr. Joanna Hunter, who has gone missing. Little does Reggie know that Dr. Hunter was the sole survivor of a killing spree 30 years ago in which Andrew Decker, recently released from prison, killed Joanna's mother, siblings, and dog. To top it off, Dr. Hunter's husband Neil has apparently gotten himself into some financial trouble and may have torched his own arcade for the insurance. Could he be in involved in his wife's disappearance? Toss in another murderer on the loose and Reggie's no-good brother, and you've got more than enough incentives to keep the pages turning. The real star of this show, though, is the witty, pitch-perfect swapping of barbs, especially between Jackson and the wonderfully sharp-tongued Louise, between Louise and her young sidekick, Marcus, and between Jackson and his nonplussed caregivers after the train wreck. Reggie has some pretty good lines, too, and employs her favorite word, "sweartogod," whenever applicable to prop up a true or false assertion. It's not all fun and games, though, and be warned that this book has more than one very dark moment.