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.