Monday, April 30, 2012

THE CLOUD ATLAS by Liam Callanan

Belk is an aging priest whose shaman friend Ronnie is dying.  He tries to keep Ronnie alive by telling him about the defining era of his life.  Belk was a teenaged bomb defuser in Alaska during WWII, in love with the same half-Eskimo prostitute, Lily, as his outrageously insane commanding officer Gurley.  The bombs in question were unmanned and being floated to North America from Japan by balloons.  The incendiaries could kill or maim anyone who came near them, but they hadn't been hugely destructive.  Then talk of germ warfare emerged, with the prospect of balloons carrying canisters of plague-infected fleas or rats.  Everything builds to a final voyage by Belk, Gurley, and Lily, ostensibly to locate Lily's former lover and Japanese spy, Saburo.  I was interested to know what was going to happen, but I didn't really care what happened. We know that Belk is going to survive the voyage, but Lily and Gurley are another matter.  Lily is conflicted about her feelings for Gurley, and I was conflicted about my feelings for Gurley.  He's out of control one minute, and then he's doing something admirable and courageous the next, but he's basically trying to redeem himself in the eyes of the military and of Lily.  His two audiences are somewhat at odds, rendering him somewhat conflicted as well.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

THE BLIND ASSASSIN by Margaret Atwood

The intriguing title belies a slow-paced melancholy novel about two privileged sisters, Iris and Laura Chase.  Iris narrates, since we learn early on that Laura died in a possibly suicidal car crash at the age of 25.  This is actually a book within a book, and there's even a third-level sci fi story in there, too.  Iris is now in her 80's with a heart condition and recounts her life as the daughter of a button factory owner in a small town near Toronto.  The factory and the family fortune are consumed by the Great Depression, and Iris is married off to Richard Griffen, a wealthy older man whose sister manages his affairs.  Scattered throughout are chapters from Laura's cult-classic novel, The Blind Assassin, that Iris published posthumously.  This more beguiling story tells of a well-to-do married woman having an affair with a Communist sympathizer on the run, who is also a sci-fi comic book writer.  The man in Laura's book is obviously reminiscent of Alex Thomas, a young man whom Laura and Iris hid in the attic after he was involved in the burning of the button factory.  Atwood manages to keep a lot of balls in the air at once, and the twist at the end is somewhat gratifying, though not sufficient to warrant the long journey to get there.

Monday, April 23, 2012

CAT'S EYE by Margaret Atwood

Elaine prefers to be called a painter rather than an artist and is in Toronto for a retrospective of her work.  This novel is a retrospective of her life, which was happy until her family moved there while she and her brother Stephen were children.  Her parents are a bit nebulous and beyond eccentric.  Her father is an entomologist who settles his family in Toronto when he takes a college teaching job.  After a nomadic life in motels and campgrounds prior to that point, Elaine is not equipped for girl stuff and pays a very high price for acceptance by her so-called friends, led by the enigmatic Cordelia.   (Mean Girls would be an appropriate title for this book.)  We know from the beginning that Elaine will make it to adulthood, but it's touch and go for a while, and I kept wondering what pivotal event was going to turn the tide for her.  There certainly is one, and although she struggles out of more than one destructive relationship, she never comes across as really triumphant or even very confident, despite her success.  This is due largely to unfinished business with Cordelia, and Atwood seems to make the point that sometimes resolution has to come from the peace we make with ourselves.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


I remember with appalling clarity all of the worst things I've done (I think).  Our narrator, Tony Webster, on the other hand, has repressed the gist of an unbelievably vicious letter he wrote his friend Adrian when Adrian began seeing Tony's ex-girlfriend Veronica.  I enjoyed this book right up until the end, and then I had only "the sense of an ending," because it didn't really have the impact I think it was intended to have.  Actually, the title could apply to a number of "endings," including a couple of suicides, the latter of which is completely baffling.  Tony's relationships have only "the sense of an ending," as Veronica reappears when her mother inexplicably leaves Tony a dead friend's diary, and Tony's ex-wife continues to be his sounding board, at least until the Veronica thing is dredged up again.  In other words, Tony's failed relationships never really have closure, and he just drifts away from his old friends, but then don't we all?  Tony is not one to make waves, and that aspect of his personality makes the vengeful letter all the more surprising, given the pivotal effect it has on the other characters.  The novel's ending certainly explains how the diary came to be in Veronica's mother's possession, and I think the ending is supposed to shed some light on the departed's state of mind.  I certainly drew my own conclusion, whether it is the one the author intended or not.  I wonder if this book is short because its publication was moved up in order to qualify for the 2011 Booker Prize.  Since it won, I can't help but feel that the prize was lip service to a body of work, not necessarily a tribute to this particular novel.

Monday, April 16, 2012

TINKERS by Paul Harding

This book leapt from obscurity to popularity when it won the 2010 Pulitzer.  Unfortunately, however, the words did not leap from the page for me.  The author flits between third person and first person, and between present and past tense, even when describing the same time period.  I felt as though he were experimenting, and somehow the book went to press before he had a chance to clean it up.  Speaking of cleaning it up, there are several typos, especially surprising in a price-winning book that is so (mercifully) short.  The writing was a little too Joycean for my tastes, with interminably long sentences, and I generally lost interest mid-sentence, thus losing track of the author's point as well.  George is a dying, old man, with his family gathered around him, awaiting his passing.  He thinks back on his life working on clocks, but the book is equally about his father, Howard, who abandoned his wife and children to avoid being institutionalized for epilepsy after one particularly dangerous seizure.  The author appears to have an ulterior motive with his emphasis on timepieces, especially with his periodic announcements of how many days, minutes, hours George has left to live—sort of a countdown to death.  The book also contains several mentions of a clock's escapement, possibly alluding to the several escapes that characters in the novel make.  George runs away to a friend's barn when he discovers that his father is about to be sent away, and Howard runs away to avoid being committed and starts a new life.  Howard's father was also an absent parent, having been committed to the madhouse himself, and then George makes the ultimate getaway by dying.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Jessie's mother has cut off her index finger with a meat cleaver.  Thus begins a tale of mysterious penance, forbidden love, and a healthy dose of YaYa-type friendships, including secrets kept from a daughter who could shed some guilt if she knew the truth.  Jessie herself is the one indulging in forbidden love—with a handsome monk who has not yet taken his final vows.  She's the stereotypical empty nester who needs to find herself.  Ironically, her husband Hugh is a psychiatrist who is oblivious to his wife's mid-life crisis, until she goes to the aid of her troubled mother, refuses Hugh's help, and refuses to come home.  Hugh knows that something is up other than concern for a demented parent, because Jessie and her mother have had a turbulent relationship ever since Jessie's father died in a boating accident while Jessie was a child.  This book was a pleasure to read, even if the subject matter was a little tired and uninventive.  The mystery of the finger lopping is what kept me reading.  The author drops broad hints that are not lost on the reader, or Jessie, for that matter, leading us to believe that perhaps Jessie's mother also had a furtive romantic relationship with a monk.  Alas, this is not a tale of history repeating itself, although there are some mother-daughter parallels.  Both have major guilt to contend with, even though both were following their hearts when they did the dastardly deeds.  This story is more about releasing one's demons by revealing them to loved ones so that the forgiveness and healing process can begin, especially forgiveness of oneself.

Monday, April 9, 2012

THE LITTLE BRIDE by Anna Solomon

Minna, a Jewish mail-order bride bound for South Dakota, suspects that she cannot bear children.  She dreams of a warm and welcoming home but instead finds a sod house built into the side of a hill and a husband whose sons are older than she.  The husband is a poor provider, partly because he is not a very good farmer and partly because his kosher requirements are not conducive to the expedient delivery of meat.  Trained as a rabbi, he is not a cruel man, but he relies on his sons' additional income and the good will of his neighbors.  The scene in which he finally allows himself to eat a chicken that has died in their henhouse is one of my favorites.  This is at least the second time that he has sacrificed his faith to his will to survive.  Minna, on the other hand, is a survivor by nature, but she finds it difficult to steel herself to a life this hard.  The other women she meets inspire a certain amount of envy, with their nicer homes and finer clothing, and shame her into trying to do the best she can with what she has.  Then a cow steps through the ceiling of Minna's earth-sheltered house--an accident which seems to pave the way to a better house, at least.  As winter sets in, however, imminent starvation spurs Minna to make some decisions in order to save herself.  In some ways, I felt that this story of Midwestern pioneer hardship was one that I had read before, but the smoldering attraction between Minna and her oldest stepson added a new element, and I couldn't help wondering where that situation was headed.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


Kate Atkinson would be a hoot to meet if a conversation with her were half as funny as the ones between the characters in her books.  One minute I'm shrinking in horror, and the next minute I can't stop laughing.  Jackson Brodie, former cop and current part-time PI, meets his match in Tracy Waterhouse, a large woman, also a former cop and now doing mall security.  She and Jackson, at about the same time, happen upon a bullying situation and offer asylum to a mistreated victim.  In Tracy's case, the victim is a little girl named Courtney; in Jackson's, it's a small dog.  In Atkinson's usual coincidental fashion, Tilly, an actress with accelerating dementia, witnesses the Courtney transaction and also happens to be in a TV show with Jackson's ex-girlfriend Julia.  Add to the mix another PI whose last name is Jackson, and off we go into one of Atkinson's delightful dervishes.  Tracy is spunky and determined and wields a mean Maglite, convinced that her various pursuers are out to separate her from Courtney.  In fact, she was a tangential player in a 1975 case in which a child….  Well, let's not go there, but that can of worms has been reopened unintentionally due to the efforts of both Jacksons, with Mr. Brodie having been hired to locate a woman's biological parents.  Tracy is pretty deft at evading her pursuers, using her heft to its best advantage, but the star of this show is little Courtney, with her fairy wand and backpack full of talismans (talismen?).  The most tragic character is perhaps Barry Crawford, a cop whose daughter lies in a coma from a car accident in which her drunken husband was driving and her young son was killed.  This book could be a good advocate for honest communication, because hidden agendas lead to some very serious unforeseen consequences.  The children are the guileless ones.  Courtney communicates more with her hands (2 thumbs up!) than most of the adults in this novel.

Monday, April 2, 2012


A cross between Oliver Twist and Angela's Ashes, with a heavy dose of the Irish Republican Army thrown in, this book is the first in a trilogy featuring picaresque hero Henry Smart, alias Fergus Nash, alias Brian O'Linn.  He even claims to be Michael Collins from time to time and makes a habit of escaping from pursuers by way of the Dublin underground sewers.  Henry joins the IRA not so much for its revolutionary cause as for a means of somehow getting revenge for the extreme poverty that pervades his existence.  In fact, it soon becomes clear that the IRA is a haven for boys with a thirst for bloodshed, violence and close calls with death, not to mention food, clothes and firearms.  Henry's one-legged father worked as a bouncer for a brothel and also performed the occasional hit for an unseen thug.  Henry finds himself doing similar dirty deeds for the not-so-poverty-stricken leaders of the IRA and realizes that the apple hasn't fallen far from the tree.  When a friend is targeted for termination, Henry begins to re-evaluate the path his life has taken.  His distaste for killing marks him as an enemy of the IRA as well, and he has to go into hiding once again.  Sometimes I enjoy a good testosterone-y read, but in this case I never really understood what was the purpose of all the fighting.  At first, the insurrectionists didn't even have popular support, and later it became obvious that the IRA were vastly outnumbered and under-equipped, lacking airpower and organization.  All they really had was passion, and sometimes that seemed to be aimed in the wrong direction.  Even after a compromise was reached with the British, the Irish leaders admitted that change was going to be minimal.  Then I suppose infighting led to the Irish Civil War.  At least I knew that Henry was going to live to inhabit two sequels.