Wednesday, March 30, 2011

THE KITCHEN HOUSE by Kathleen Grissom

Though predictable and melodramatic, The Kitchen House hooked me with its two alternating narrators, who tell the story in a straightforward, sequential fashion, with a little overlap between the two. This was a refreshing change from so many books these days that have dual storylines in two different time periods or, worse yet, such checkered timeframes that it's difficult to keep up with what happened when or even in which generation. The book begins in the voice of Lavinia, a white, 7-year-old indentured servant whose parents died on the voyage from Ireland in the late 1700's. She quickly becomes the darling of the kitchen slaves at Tall Oaks, a Virginia tobacco plantation. Her big break comes when she goes to Williamsburg to live with the relatives of the owner's wife. Although heartbroken about leaving behind the black servants who have become her surrogate family, she receives a proper education in both academics and social etiquette to prepare her for an advantageous marriage. The other narrator is Belle, the owner's mulatto daughter who all the white folks believe to be his mistress. In fact, the plot largely hinges on Lavinia's various misconceptions about who did what to whom to the point that she deprives herself of the happily-ever-after life she could have with Will Stephens, the overseer at Tall Oaks. I found myself slapping my forehead in frustration with each of her bonehead moves, but her poor decision-making is partly due to several factors outside her control. One is that her station in life is a little precarious, and she feels that any inquiries she makes will jeopardize her situation. The other is that there are just basically a lot of secrets among the slaves, who have even more at stake than Lavinia does and, even so, are frequently punished for the misdeeds of the white folk. The book, then, comes off as somewhat of a soap opera, where the heroes and villains are clearly distinguishable, but the good guys may inadvertently contribute to their own demise by jumping to the wrong conclusion. Soap operas can be addictive, though, and this one had me eagerly looking forward to each episode.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

THE LIARS' CLUB by Mary Karr

I wonder if this book would have been as popular if it had come after, rather than before, Jeannette Walls' blockbuster, The Glass Castle. Both authors managed to emerge from horrific childhoods, if not exactly unscathed, at least with their writing talents intact. Mary Karr never mentions a journal, and the clarity of her childhood memories is incredible. Of course, I'm making a broad assumption that her recollections are accurate. Her father was an east Texas oil worker, who despite some other serious shortcomings, was a decent provider for his family. Karr's mother was Nervous with a capital N, a euphemism for wacko, and spent some time in a mental institution after twice trying to take down her family by driving the car over a bridge. The final straw was when she burned most of her daughters' clothes in a bonfire and then, with butcher knife in hand, phoned the sheriff, telling them that she had killed her children, while they cowered, unharmed, under a blanket. And that's not all—not by a longshot. Both parents wrestled with significant demons from their pasts and were alcoholics, oblivious to the fact that Mary was sexually abused twice—once by a neighbor boy and once by an adult male babysitter. Hers was an eventful childhood, and obviously not in a good way. For example, Mary's sister Lecia was attacked by a Portuguese man-of-war, apparently not heeding their father's warnings and the dead creatures washed up on the beach. The parents, of course, were in a beachside bar at the time. The parents never exhibited any remorse for their neglect, benign or otherwise, and seemed to think that it was acceptable for Lecia, the "competent" daughter, as opposed to Mary, the "cute" daughter, to act as a surrogate mother. When the parents decided to split up, Lecia convinced Mary that they should stay with their mother, to take care of her. The parents obviously didn't see themselves as requiring this kind of oversight, and it's a seriously sad state of affairs when they actually do.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

THE LINCOLN LAWYER by Michael Connelly

Mickey Haller is the type of lawyer that gives lawyers a bad name. His number one priority is getting paid. Under his jaded surface is a code of ethics of some sort, although he does give cash gifts to bail bondsmen and others who might send clients or favorable verdicts his way. He does, however, respect the law, and he even holds a bit of compassion for the underdog. He doesn't do pro bono work, though, except in the case of one drug-addicted prostitute, and he is allowing a former client to work off his fee as the driver of his Lincoln Town Car. There's a reason this book has been made into a movie: legal thrillers don't come any better than this. A wealthy realtor named Louis Roulet enlists Mickey's services, claiming innocence to a charge of assault and attempted murder. Quite a bit is made of the adage that an innocent man is the most difficult to defend, because no plea bargain is acceptable; the only satisfactory outcome is a "not guilty" verdict. Is Roulet really innocent, though, or just a privileged sleazeball? The book answers this question fairly quickly, and Haller faces more than a few conundrums, as he finds that Roulet's case is related to that of a previous client, who is currently serving time and still maintaining his innocence. Of course, there has to be a woman somewhere, and that would be prosecuting attorney Maggie McPherson, one of Haller's two ex-wives. She's seldom his court adversary for very long, though, because she is obligated to recuse herself when she and Haller are assigned to the same case. Haller's other ex-wife, Lorna, is essentially his office manager. His relationship with these two women is very revealing, with regard to his relationships in general. He doesn't burn his bridges, because everyone has a purpose. He does become more likeable as the book steamrolls to its conclusion and his meticulously laid plan unfurls.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

BLOODROOT by Amy Greene

I just wasn't really in the mood to read yet another book about poor white suffering Southerners, especially women who make unbelievably bad choices in husbands and can't be bothered to take care of their children. If I've counted correctly, in this book six different voices from three generations narrate their own stories, all of which revolve around Myra Lamb. The other narrators are her grandmother, her husband, her two children, Laura and Johnny, and a neighbor who is in love with her. The voices are probably authentic, with their bad grammar and mispronounced words. I grew up in Tennessee, too, and I've heard "wash" pronounced as "worsh," but I'm not accustomed to the bad grammar, and it grates on my nerves just to read it. I get that the characters are mostly uneducated mountain people, although Myra's son Johnny narrates in the voice of the aspiring writer that he is. I enjoyed his sections the most, although he admits to doing some pretty despicable things. He is not the worst offender, though. That distinction would fall to Myra's husband and his family, who are horribly cruel and slovenly. Second place in the meanness department goes to Laura's mother-in-law, who is obviously deranged, even more so than Myra, who is confined to a mental health hospital. The title refers to a plant with a poisonous sap that can also be used for medicinal purposes. I think it connotes for the author's purposes a family tree or inherited traits, which in this case mimic the plant with both healing and noxious properties.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

SOLAR by Ian McEwan

Michael Beard is middle-aged and overweight, has a Nobel Prize, and shouldn't have to be an Einstein to figure out that he has no business spending a week in the Arctic. However, he needs a boondoggle that will help him recover from the cuckolding he has received from wife #5, and a global warming expedition sounds like just the ticket. Two hilarious episodes follow and almost make this book a worthwhile read, but it peaks too early. Then we're saddled with witnessing more of Beard's incredibly bad and selfish decisions, even as he becomes more seriously involved in the development of solar power using simulated photosynthesis. His goal, though, is not saving the planet but rather restoring his hallowed position in the annals of science. If he has to plagiarize an underling's work and frame his wife's lover for murder to get there, then so be it. Truth and integrity have to take a back seat to his ambition. He's able to rationalize his behavior because the people he's burned are either pretty despicable themselves, and, in Beard's mind, deserving of their fate, or dead. As a reader, I like to see an unlikable character like Beard either reformed or crushed by the consequences of his actions. In this case, his house of cards collapses just as he's on the brink of achieving the success and recognition that he craves. I'd actually prefer to be uplifted by some sort of hope for this sad specimen of a man, especially since his work is vital to our survival, and there's only the palest glimmer of too-late redemption in the final sentence. Whether or not the planet will ultimately be preserved is still an open question, and if our salvation is in the hands of the Michael Beards of the world, the outcome does not look promising at all.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


Don't recommend this book to your mother. It's 1962 England, and two virgins, Florence and Edward, have just begun their honeymoon in a resort inn. Somehow their marriage has, in their minds, plunged them into adulthood and freedom, following their chaste, almost Victorian-style romance. However, from a sexual standpoint, Florence is completely unprepared and disgusted by the thought of penetration. Edward, on the other hand, has refrained from self-pleasuring for a week, which, for him, is a lengthy abstinence. He is beside himself with lust, but some of his crude pre-marriage advances caused weeks of sulking on Florence's part, so that he is understandably cautious. This book is so short that it's hard to say much without giving away the climax, pun intended. Suffice it to say that there's a major communication breakdown between these two, perhaps reflective of their socio-economic gap. Florence is an ambitious violinist from a chilly but wealthy family, while Edward has had a rural upbringing and is somewhat directionless and volatile. I'm not sure what the author is trying to say here, except that perhaps Florence is more buttoned-up and Edward more emotionally transparent because of their backgrounds, but I don't really think those stereotypes lend much to the story. More to the point is that they both seem to suffer from the common delusion that their partner is a mindreader. Certainly they have not yet learned that marriage means constantly having to say you're sorry while you gulp down your pride.