Wednesday, August 31, 2011


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


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


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


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


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.