Wednesday, September 25, 2013


This is not a short book, but it's also not a long read.  Of course, if you're not really into it, and I wasn't, it seems like a very long read.  I enjoy humor as much as the next person, but this is more of a farce, and, at the risk of sounding like a heretic, I think farces work better as theatre, or even movies.  Think Shakespeare or Molière, or perhaps Forrest Gump, to whom our 100-year-old man, Allan Karlsson, has been compared by other reviewers.  Certainly the book was better than the movie in that case as well.  Here we have Allan, a Swede who escapes from the old folks' home and has a series of ridiculous adventures in which someone usually gets killed in some absurd manner, such as being squashed by an elephant.  Of course, the victims are usually baddies, but then Allan has stolen a suitcase, so he's not exactly blameless.  Before long, Allan and his merry band of hangers-on, who are not necessarily good citizens either, are on the lam.  Their moral turpitude makes them a target for inept law enforcement officials, who suspect foul play but have no real evidence of criminal activity. Allan and his entourage are equally inept, or they wouldn't be leaving corpses in their wake.  His present-day escapades are interleaved with past experiences, which usually involve a famous historical figure or event.  Does that sound familiar?  This book is not for everybody and certainly not for me.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

THE ROUND HOUSE by Louise Erdrich

Thirteen-year-old Joe lives on a North Dakota reservation, and his world is rocked when his mother, Geraldine, is beaten and raped.  She retreats into depression and silence, exasperating Joe and his father, a tribal judge, since they need for her to identify her assailant.  The attack took place near the ceremonial Round House, but Geraldine does not know the exact location, leading to a jurisdictional quagmire that makes prosecution futile.  Once the attacker's identity is known, Joe starts to take matters into his own hands, to free his family from the fear of further violence.  I enjoyed the first half of this book immensely.  It was suspenseful, and I was able to maintain hope that this family could return to something close to normalcy.  However, the second half I found to be very dark, with an unsettling revelation and yet another tragedy, leaving Joe to sort out his regrets and sorrows.  The reader knows from the get-go that Joe goes on to study law himself, but I would have liked the book not to end as it did.  I don't know if his family is irreparably broken, but one thing I do know:  Joe had to grow up before his time.  There's even a scene near the end where he becomes infuriated at his parents for their innocence in the midst of his own consternation, to the point that he sees them as "the oblivious children" and himself as the perturbed adult.  (I have to see this role reversal as temporary or perhaps even wildly skewed, given the event that follows.)  My biggest beef with this book is that I never really grasped the motive for the attack in the first place.  I know this book is a vehicle for the author to protest the fact that few white rapists of Native American women ever go to trial, but I thought she could have done a better job of setting up the premise for Geraldine having been targeted.

Monday, September 16, 2013

THE BEET QUEEN by Louise Erdrich

Karl and Mary's mother runs off with a stunt pilot in 1929, leaving them to take care of their newborn brother.  Who can resist an opening like this?  A young couple absconds with the baby, and Karl and Mary hop a train to Argus, ND, where their mother's sister lives.  Frightened by a dog in Argus, Karl returns to the train, so that all three siblings grow up separately.  Aunt Fritzie and her husband run a butcher shop, which Mary eventually takes over, since their natural daughter, Sita, is more suited to other pursuits, such as department store modeling.  Karl returns to Argus as an adult and fathers a daughter, nicknamed Dot, with Mary's close friend Celestine.  The author weaves together the stories of all these characters, interleaving their perspectives, into a colorful tapestry of lives that are ordinary and yet compelling.  Celestine and Mary both dote on Dot and compete for the affection of this quite impulsive and unruly child.  Dot is the center of their universe, and ours, too, as she hoodwinks Mary into thinking that her first grade teacher is a tyrant, knocks out another child's tooth, and wreaks havoc on the Christmas play.  Some scenes in the book are hilarious, in a disturbing sort of way, and the author never lets our unfortunate characters get too maudlin.  Except for Sita, the women are all strong, impetuous, and singularly unattractive.  This latter trait doesn't slow them down, though.  Their lives are worthy of our consideration, as we gape at how they respond to various nuisances in a completely unexpected way, with little consideration for the consequences.  After reading this book, you'll be a little leery of Jell-O salads.  Really.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


Margot and Gwen-Laura are sisters who have both lost their husbands, in a fashion, and are living together in Margot's ritzy apartment.  Gwen's husband, Edwin, died suddenly of a heart defect, and she is reluctant to rejoin the world of dating.  Margot's husband, Charles, is a gynecologist currently serving time for being a personal sperm donor for his patients.  Margot is also broke, thanks to Bernie Madoff, but she still has the penthouse, home not only to her and her sister, but also to a delightful gay young man, Anthony, who has a knack for making cupcakes and multi-tasking.  When Margot's husband is paroled and moves into the same building, reconciliation must be afoot, even though he's anxious to have a rapport with the son produced by one of his office liaisons.  Gwen, the narrator, is everyone's project, as they poke and prod her to get on with her life.  If there's a message here, it's subtle, and I prefer to take this type of novel at face value—just good, clean fun.  No one is completely distasteful, and no one is perfect, either—except perhaps Anthony.  I guess there are two big questions:  Should Margot forgive her husband for multiple acts of adultery, and can Gwen find love without feeling traitorous toward Edwin?  These are serious issues but treated with a light touch here, and I don't object to that at all.  Sometimes the best lessons don't have to be pounded into you with a lot of angst and hand-wringing.

Monday, September 9, 2013

THEN SHE FOUND ME by Elinor Lipman

April Epner's adoptive parents have both passed away, and Bernice Graverman feels that she can now out herself as April's birth mother.  Bernice is a famous TV personality who plunges into April's thirty-something life and then expects her to believe that JFK is her father.  Bernice follows this up with another tall tale, and then a young woman shows up, claiming to be Bernice's real daughter, fathered by Jack Kerouac.  Eventually we, and April, find out the truth.  Meanwhile, April, a Latin teacher, has struck up a friendship with the school librarian, Dwight, who unwittingly finds himself in Bernice's web as well.  The banter among these three is refreshing and witty, keeping the situation from becoming too heavy.  April has these two relationships to explore and hopes to add a third—that of her biological father—to the mix.  In fact, I found April to be just a vehicle to bring the gangly, nerdy Dwight and the over-the-top Bernice together on the page.  Dwight is an ugly duckling with the potential to become April's Prince Charming.  Bernice doesn't quite fit the role of the evil queen or stepmother in this fairy tale, though, because she's not malicious in her meddling machinations at all.  In fact, she's pretty wise—in a wise-ass sort of way.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013


Oprah definitely has a penchant for books about long-suffering, strong women with dissolute husbands, and this is no exception.  On the other hand, Hattie is not your warm-and-fuzzy, nurturing mother.  When she loses her firstborn twins to pneumonia, she embodies tough love as she focuses on making sure her next nine (!) children survive.  Each chapter tells the story of one or more of her tribe:  one who is homosexual, one who was abused, one whose father is not Hattie's husband, one who uses his seizures to conjure up religious fervor, one who is mentally ill, one who has TB and has given up on life, and one who is given away in order to have a better life.  I had the sense that perhaps Hattie lost the ability to love after the deaths of her first two children, especially when she abandons all but one to start a new life with her lover, who may or may not be an improvement over her husband, as either a father or a provider.  I was not particularly fond of the structure, which was similar to OliveKitteridge, in that the chapters felt like loosely connected short stories.  I can handle the occasional flashback, but this novel jumps around in time more than most, and I finally decided just to ignore that aspect of it.  Also, I would have liked a little more closure with regard to the child that Hattie gives to her sister to raise.  Did the child really have a better life?  Did Hattie maintain a relationship with her?  In fact, the author leaves the reader hanging with regard to almost all of the children and their tribulations.  Most chapters are just a snapshot of a person's life at some critical point in time, and I suppose these snippets combine to give us a pretty full portrait of Hattie herself.  Still, she's a little inscrutable, not really loving, and not really lovable.