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


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


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


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 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.