Wednesday, December 26, 2012

THE DOGS OF BABEL by Carolyn Parkhurst

The only witness to the death of Paul Iverson's wife, Lexy, is their dog, Lorelei.  Did Lexy fall from the tall apple tree or did she jump?  Her death is ruled an accident, but, if she fell, why was she up there in the first place?  Plus, just before her death, Lexy reorganized the books in their library and fed Lorelei a steak; both acts were previously unheard of.  Paul wants answers and hopes that Lorelei can somehow provide them.  He investigates the possibility of canine speech and becomes the laughingstock of his colleagues at the university where he teaches.  Meanwhile, his flashbacks to his week-long first date with Lexy and her occasional outbursts of anger provide us with a portrait of an imaginative but troubled young woman. I kept asking myself why neither Paul nor Lexy ever mentioned psychotherapy, but I guess he was in denial, and she was too embarrassed.  Also, how could Lexy possibly earn a living making papier-maché masks?  Oh, well.  Let's not fret the details.  At least Paul's obsession with dog training abates a bit when he finds that Lexy consulted a TV fortune teller just before her death.  This discovery gives him a different mission:  to find out the details of that conversation.  Or perhaps he can unlock the mystery by reading Lexy's dream journal, or by figuring out what the new book arrangement means.  The various clues fuel Paul's quest, but I was never quite sure if grief drove his pursuit of the truth or if he just wanted closure.  I certainly wanted closure myself, and the author provided it in a very satisfying ending.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012


This has got to be the worst John Grisham book ever.  It wasn't funny or cute or entertaining in any way.  You know the drill:  Nora and Luther Krank (!) have decided not to celebrate Christmas because their delightful daughter Blair will be in Peru with the Peace Corps.  They're going to spend the money on a Caribbean cruise instead, departing Christmas Day.  Their biggest faux pas in this endeavor, at least as far as their neighbors are concerned, is electing not to install their 8-foot Frosty on the roof to match all the other houses on their street.  They even refuse to make seasonal charitable donations, and their promises to donate even more for other causes the following year are scorned by the solicitors.  This is supposed to be satirical, I think, as Grisham cites more and more ways in which Christmas has become an expensive and time-consuming chore for many of us.  He fails, however, to really get our attention, not really taking a stand as he also points out the upside of family and fellowship during the holidays.  Was this book written for Hollywood?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

ZONE ONE by Colson Whitehead

Known throughout the novel as Mark Spitz, our protagonist has exemplified mediocrity throughout his life but has found that he's very good at staying alive amidst plague-induced zombies, known as skels (skeletons).  (The author takes his time explaining various vernacular terms, as well as the origin of Mark Spitz's assumed name.)  About 1% of those infected are not flesh eaters but instead are immobile stragglers—stopped in their tracks at their final living task or pleasure.  Mark Spitz and his fellow Omega team members are sweepers, shooting the heads off of stragglers and skels alike in Zone One—a cordoned off section of Manhattan.   The nation's capital has been relocated to Buffalo, but disheartening rumors filter down to the survivors, many of whom remain hopeful that some semblance of civilization will return, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Billed as a literary genre novel, this didn't work for me as literature or as a zombie thriller.  I found the plot, if there is one, difficult to follow, partly because Mark Spitz frequently reflects on past events that I could rarely distinguish from current events.  Possibly, too, my lack of familiarity with New York was a hindrance. If this is an homage to New York, it's a strange one, as the survival of humanity becomes increasingly in doubt as the novel progresses.  The book seemed a little cynical to me, depicting the hopeful as foolhardy, except in the case of Mark Spitz, who has found his calling in his struggle to beat the odds.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


Ira Overman is middle-aged and mediocre in every way, until he strikes a bargain with a Lasik surgeon.  The result is improved eyesight, plus an unexpected bonus:  he seems to have acquired the ability to manipulate traffic and attract beautiful women.  As he experiments with his newfound superpowers, he gains a whole new perspective on what he can accomplish, even with just his normal human faculties.  He reconnects with his children, and seeks out a woman whose gang rape he unwillingly participated in while in high school.  Then things start to get out of hand.  His friend Jake goes a little haywire and declares himself Ira's superhero sidekick.  Before you know it, Ira has attracted a couple of other groupies, who encourage him to attempt time travel and teleporting, using comic books as his guide.  Bruce Ferber is a Hollywood screenwriter, and his book is supposed to be funny.  However, I found it too outlandish and crass.  I like the metaphor of having one's eyes opened to life's possibilities, but the cartoonish supporting characters range from a porn queen who has a rather unusual talent, to a swami with a taste for exotic automobiles.  Plus, a horrific incident like a gang rape, amidst all of this nonsense, just doesn't feel right.  This book actually might have worked better as a comic book, with something less scarring as the basis for Ira's guilt.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Gemma Hardy, a hardy Scottish lass, makes a habit of fleeing.  First, she escapes a Cinderella-like existence (the wicked stepmother = Gemma's widowed aunt), but there's no fairy godmother here.  She lands a scholarship of sorts to Claypoole, where the "working girls" are little more than slaves.  This gig ends when the school falls on hard financial times, and Gemma responds to an ad for an au pair in the Orkneys.  Despite the remoteness of her new post, she bonds with her ill-tempered charge, Nell, and with her employer, Hugh Sinclair, who puts in rare appearances.  This latter bond develops into something more, but Hugh is 41, and Gemma is 18.  More importantly, Hugh has some unsavory secrets that may be more of a hindrance to their romance than the age difference.  Gemma builds quite a history of regrettable deeds herself, with at least a couple more "flights" still to come.  This is one of those books that I looked forward to opening every night, so that I could share Gemma's next adventure.  I've read that this book is a retelling of Jane Eyre, but I saw Pippi Longstocking, one of Gemma's favorite characters, as her alter-ego—a little too audacious for her own good.  Part of what motivates Gemma is that she suspects that she has relatives in Iceland (Pippi is Swedish), and she yearns for some sort of family connection.  Another motivator is the need to right a wrong that she inadvertently caused.  Although she has suffered more than most in her short lifetime, Gemma is not the savvy wayfarer that the reader might expect.  Her naivete is at times her demise and at times her salvation.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

THE COVE by Ron Rash

The title suggests isolation, and the main characters are indeed outsiders.  The setting is a small town in North Carolina near the conclusion of World War I.  Laurel lives in the dank and dreary cove with her brother Hank, who lost an arm in combat.  The townspeople shun her because of a birthmark that they believe marks her as a witch.  She has almost no contact with anyone except Hank and their helpful neighbor Slidell.  Then she happens upon a stranger (Walter) who, unbeknownst to her is an escapee from a German internment camp.  He doesn't speak but plays a flute beautifully, bringing some much needed joy into Laurel's life.  She hopes to persuade him to stay on the farm and help out, rather than leave for New York to fulfill his musical ambitions.  His imminent departure and Hank's upcoming marriage will leave Lauren more alone than ever.  There's another lonely character to consider, however.  That's Chauncey, the pampered son of a banker, who heads up the local recruitment office.  Many of the injured veterans look disdainfully upon him for having secured such a cushy assignment, and some of the locals even blame him for their wartime casualties.  On the surface he seems pretty harmless, but he's looking for an opportunity to prove himself worthy of his neighbors' respect and he's a powder keg waiting to explode.  I have a couple of beefs with this novel.  For one thing, nothing much happens until the end, and then everything screeches to a rather abrupt halt.  Secondly, the three main characters—Laurel, Walter, and Chauncey—are too one-dimensional.  Laurel and Walter have no any glaring flaws, and Chauncey has no redeeming qualities.  Hank is a little more multi-faceted, adapting to his disability, fighting the battles that his sister cannot, but at the same time looking out for his own well-being.  I think his story would have made a better center.