Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Ellen has the perfect life. She's newly married to Andy—rich, handsome, smart and caring. Andy also happens to be Ellen's best friend's brother. Then Ellen runs into her sexy ex-lover Leo, and things begin to unravel, because perfection is, well, boring. Will she succumb to temptation? The ending is not a surprise, but Ellen's thought processes as she makes her choice makes it at least satisfying. This isn't a light read. In fact, humor is noticeably absent. Nor does it offer any particular insight into how to grapple with this sort of decision, which is obviously a no-brainer. The author seems to make the case that Ellen needs closure, in order to be happy with Andy and stop fretting about what might have been with Leo. However, I would speculate that Leo is just one distraction in a marriage that may not be exactly rock solid. Anyway, this is not the type of book that inspires a whole lot of rumination. Just read it and weep.
Tuesday, February 28, 2012
Before The Jane Austen Book Club and The Friday Night Knitting Club, there was How to Make an American Quilt, in which each chapter recounts the life of a member of the Grasse, California, quilting bee. The leader is Anna, a black woman taken in, while an unwed mother-to-be, by the mother of Hy and Glady Joe, back when they were young girls. Now all three women are in their twilight years, Hy having moved in with Glady Joe, even after having a fling with Glady Joe's husband while her own husband was dying. Glady Joe's husband, now deceased also, is not the only unfaithful one, however. Em's husband Dean is having an affair with the very reserved Constance, and Em knows that it's not his first affair. This profligate husband-sharing causes some strife within the quilting bee, but basically this is a series of interwoven stories with no real plot. The author makes a valiant attempt to use several different quilt patterns, including the patchwork "crazy quilt," as metaphors for the lives of these women, but the similarities seemed a little forced to me. Sophia was a diver who met Preston while he was a college student. They both had dreams of leading nontraditional lives, traveling the world, but the arrival of a daughter forces them to settle down. Perhaps one can draw a comparison between all of these unplanned lives and the crazy quilt. Anna's daughter Marianna, is the only one who really breaks out of the mold. College-educated, she lived in Paris for a time, taking lovers both black and white, before finally returning to Grasse. The mood that pervades the book is one of quiet contentment, with a sharing and acceptance of all the different paths that the bee members followed to reach this state.
Monday, February 27, 2012
Our narrator is Maggy, who co-owns a coffee shop with Sarah. Two real estate agents have been murdered in this small town in Wisconsin, and Sarah doubles as a realtor. When her intern Brigid turns up dead also, the terror has hit a little too close to home, especially since her body is found in a room under the coffee shop. However, no one seems all that terrorized. The tennis ladies still show up for lunch, even with crime tape on the premises, and Maggy does some amateur sleuthing at a bar where Brigid was last seen. I guessed the culprit as soon as the fourth victim was identified in a resident's swimming pool, and so will you. Maggy is sleeping with the handsome sheriff, but neither of them grasps the obvious. Since the plot needed some outsiders to provide a decoy, there's a TV crew in town to film the expected recovery of some missing millions that the local Mafiosi skimmed from casino loot. The show's star is Ward Chitown, from Chicago—where else? He's slimy and greedy but too new in town to finger for the murders. Plus, he has no motive. Or does he? I just found the whole situation too implausible, including the murders themselves and the town's nonchalant reaction, and I can handle an implausible plot if it's funny or entertaining or suspenseful, and this book just didn't have enough of these attributes.
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
The book opens with the wedding of Adam and Cynthia Morey, two beautiful people whom we get to know only superficially by the end of the novel. Adam's social gifts make him the darling of his private equity firm, but he wants more and launches a separate endeavor that thrives on insider trading. This story could have dissolved into an ethical lecture if the SEC had caught up with Adam's dealings, but that is not what happens. Instead, he quits while he's ahead, and Cynthia heads up a foundation to give away their millions of ill-gotten gains. This outcome just seems incredibly unlikely to me, as Adam does not come off as the Robin Hood type. Perhaps the author intends for us to get to know these people via their actions rather than their thoughts and feelings. In any case, their two children, April, a bona fide mean girl, and Jonas, who develops an interest in offbeat art, are more transparent, as they grow up navigating the world of the insanely rich. Each has a terrifying experience as a result of incredibly bad judgment, and their reactions to these incidents are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Are Cynthia and Adam bad parents? No, in fact they treat April's screw-up as a wake-up call and very calmly ship her off with Adam to China on a business trip. There she will see poverty in the extreme and perhaps gain some perspective. After all, when your view of the world is as warped as April's and Jonas's, you can't expect normalcy. In today's world, "normal" may be a moving target, but certainly this family is an outlier.
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
After a mind-numbing 100 pages, our middle-aged protagonist, Julian Donahue, embarks on a fascinating, bizarre courtship of Cait O'Dwyer, a beautiful young Irish singer. Their passion plays out in a sort of dance or chess match that begins when Julian provides Cait with useful anonymous tips on how to enhance her career in music. The two are drawn to each other without actually coming face to face, invading one another's privacy in a tantalizing series of non-encounters. While Cait is writing and performing songs that allude to Julian's advice and attentions, Julian is grieving the death of his young son, which led to the dissolution of his marriage. As each scheduled rendezvous fails to result in an actual meeting, the pressure builds on Julian to ensure that the situation is perfect when they finally get together. The plot teeters on the intriguing "will they or won't they" question, leading to the ultimate crossing of signals, which reminded me of O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi." Misunderstandings and miscues abound, and I felt every ounce of Julian's nervous longing and frustration, compounded by his suspicion that perhaps he is just an over-the-hill obsessed fan. Cait's song lyrics are the real guide as to her emotions, and music is certainly an important theme here, with Julian unable to relinquish his iPod when going through airport security. His father and mother met at a Billie Holiday concert, and there may be parallels between Billie and Cait that I'm not aware of, other than the enchanting effect they had on father and son, respectively, with both their music and their persona. Several of the side characters manage to embarrass themselves in a comical manner: Julian's brother, Aidan, who famously blurted out an appalling answer on a national game show; Alec, a has-been musician who also fancies Cait; and Stan, a cop hired by a jealous band member to stop Julian's stalking of Cait. Whether you're into a music or just looking for a well-written off-kilter love story with a few twists and turns, this book delivers—if you can get past that first 100 pages.
Monday, February 13, 2012
Arthur Phillips has taken a page out of Nabokov's book, Pale Fire, to create a play (rather than a poem) with a mass of largely superfluous footnotes and a huge introduction that really constitutes the novel. Always innovative, Phillips himself is the narrator, focusing on his relationship with his prison-bound father, Arthur Sr., who, limited only by his imagination, enjoyed the occupation of forger, just to see how much he could get away with. The play within, according to Arthur Sr., is a never-before-published work by William Shakespeare, iambic pentameter and all, about King Arthur (yes, that's 3 Arthurs), or it is Arthur Sr.'s fraudulent masterpiece. Arthur Sr. is the embodiment of the boy who cried wolf, having deceived and humiliated his family so many times that his son has to assume that every gift from his father, including a baseball legitimately signed by Rod Carew, is a fake. Arthur Jr.'s twin sister Dana is as much a Shakespeare fan as her father and is willing to cut him some slack, because she loves the play, regardless of its origin. In fact, despite Arthur Jr.'s success as a novelist, Dana is still Dad's favorite, so that Arthur Jr. has to question why his father gave him this rare relic to bring to the attention of the world. This book was a struggle for me to read, and I found the author's (exaggerated?) conceit a little over-the-top, especially when Dana tells Arthur Jr. that he is a better writer than Shakespeare. The section in which the author discusses the possibly undeserved rise of Shakespeare's standing against other literary greats was more insightful than the section in which Dana explores the age-old theories about alternative or collaborative authors for Shakespeare's plays. The author also suggests—perhaps seriously, perhaps not—that the bard taught us how to respond to love and war, to treachery and power. The Phillips family has all of these dynamics at work but generally failed to stir my emotions, and I'm not familiar enough with Shakespeare's plays to observe any parallels there. This is certainly my least favorite of Phillips' novels, and I would recommend it for Shakespeare-ophiles only.
Labels: 2 stars
Wednesday, February 8, 2012
Jake Bronson has a terminal brain tumor and claustrophobia. An earthquake and power outage during an MRI would leave anyone shaken, but it leaves Jake with some powerful new cognitive powers. I was willing to buy it all, including the Lisbeth-like photographic memory, until the telekinesis kicked in, and I have to draw the line somewhere. When a thriller crosses too far into the realm of science fiction, it loses me. That's not to say that I didn't enjoy this book, because I did, to some degree, but I wasn't as embroiled in the plot as I would have liked to have been, even though there is a damsel in distress to give some purpose to a lot of gunfire. When our claustrophobic hero finds himself in a labyrinth of narrow tunnels in Afghanistan, I became very confused as to who was where. Also, I don't like endings that require a sequel, especially not in the first book of a series; I feel a little hoodwinked. Cliffhangers usually work better for the second book, because, after reading two, the reader is basically hooked anyway, as in the aforementioned Stieg Larsson books, or even in the original Star Wars movie trilogy. Plus, there's a big question about a possible informer in this book that I don't think was ever resolved, unless I missed it while skimming the specifications of an assault rifle or some other type of weaponry. Speaking of advanced artillery, I have to confess that I don't know what technology is really available in modern warfare and what is a product of the author's imagination. Apparently, the robotic NRI AutoCopter Gunship really does exist, as does the V-22 Osprey, a plane that, like a helicopter, doesn't require a runway. Since these two machines were the most amazing to me, and they're not even that new, I have to assume that all of the military equipment mentioned in the novel is legit. Now that's impressive.
Wednesday, February 1, 2012
This title begs the question, "Who is the narcissist?" There are 2 daughters, but one, Chloe, has only one parent, Brigman, an alcoholic car mechanic, and I think it's safe to say that he is not the narcissist. The other daughter is Jessi Kessler, whose father Ted is a physician and whose mother Joyce is a nurse. Either of these unsavory parents is a candidate. The main character and narrator is Syd, Chloe's half-brother, who in 1979 works in Ted's lab at the hospital as a phlebotomist. Ted encourages Syd to transfer to the night shift, where Syd meets Joyce and begins an affair, even though he realizes that Ted can sabotage his med school plans if he finds out. Then Syd discovers that he has been victimized by the Kessler family and seeks revenge by wooing Jessi, a teenager. This scheme backfires in more ways than one. There are several plot twists, the last of which I found not particularly surprising, and the storyline is a little bit kinky (no complaints here). I actually love plot-driven novels, but still I would have liked to have known what makes Syd tick. He's obviously intelligent and attractive, but his moral compass seems to be a little off course. He might be more ethically inclined if he weren't kept in the dark about most everything that happens around him, but I doubt it. Is he the narcissist? Perhaps, but that would require a daughter….