Wednesday, October 30, 2013

SAN MIGUEL by T.C. Boyle

Two families inhabited the small island of San Miguel, off the coast of Santa Barbara, CA, as sheep ranchers—one in the late 1800's, and one in the 1930s and early 1940s.  They couldn't have been more different.  Marantha Waters suffers from tuberculosis, and her move to the blustery island, at the behest of her tyrannical husband, probably exacerbated the disease.  She and her adopted daughter Edith long for the comforts, amenities, and society of the mainland.  On San Miguel they live in a rustic, rundown house, hundreds of yards away from the privy, and receive supplies and mail via boat once in a blue moon.  Even by the standards of the 1880s, they are roughing it.  Fast forward 50 years, and a few improvements are evident, including an updated house.  Air travel and radio communication are now available also.  The new caretakers are the Lesters--Herbie and Elise--who both delight in the crisp air and solitude.  Imagine, though, raising children there with scant social interaction and no access to formal education.  The Lesters make do, living in isolation with remarkable zest, causing journalists to hype them as the "Swiss Family Lester."  The attack on Pearl Harbor, however, brings their idyll to an abrupt end, replacing contentment with uneasiness, since their island is one of the last stepping stones between Japan and the USA proper.  Plus, Herbie appears to be bipolar, giving the reader a sense of foreboding, as his dark periods become a little more frequent and a little more severe.  This book, though, is about the women, facing unfathomable hardships and managing to keep it together somehow.  Elise Lester doesn't just survive; she thrives.  Let's see:  she does all the cooking and cleaning, raises two children, home-schools them quite successfully, and still finds time for gardening and sewing.  Now that's multitasking.  Based on fact, this book drew me in, but I must say I never envied the characters.

Monday, October 28, 2013

RIVEN ROCK by T.C. Boyle

Eddie O'Kane has a drinking problem and has been known to strike a woman.  His employer, Stanley McCormick, youngest son of Cyrus McCormick, inventor of the reaper, also has a problem with women and hasn't actually seen one in twenty years—not since he attacked a perfect stranger on a train.  This book follows the lives of both men during the course of their association while Stanley is basically incarcerated at a mansion originally built for his sister, who is also mentally ill.  Stanley's behavior runs the gamut from catatonic to unbridled rage.  Over the years, his psychiatric treatment is virtually useless, serving basically as a research instrument for his physicians, until finally a doctor comes along who employs Freud's "talking cure," with mixed results.  Meanwhile, Stanley's long-suffering wife Katherine visits every year but can see Stanley only by clandestinely watching him through binoculars from the mansion grounds.  According to Boyle, she never stops loving Stanley, more for what he could have been than what he actually was, and he was never a husband in the physical sense.  I identified most strongly with Katherine, not only because she's a strong female character, but also because her story is really the most tragic.  However, she doesn't allow her husband's affliction to deter her from finding her own fulfillment through feminist causes such as voting rights and birth control, and fortunately she has the financial resources to pursue these interests.  Boyle never disappoints, and this historical fiction piece is no exception.  At almost 500 pages, though, it requires a bit of a time commitment.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013


I've noticed that other reviewers cut this author a lot of slack for contrived and emotionally manipulative plots, but I'm not that generous.  This book meanders hither and thither, all over the world, back and forth in time, and among characters that are sometimes loosely connected, at best.  There's too much going on here for me.  It's almost as though he didn't have enough material for the primary plot, and so he whisked in a few others.  The main story is that of the separation of two young siblings, which I think is a more heartbreaking storyline than the loss of a child.  Abdullah adores his young sister Pari, but their father allows a wealthy couple in Kabul to adopt Pari so that he can perhaps somehow manage to provide for the rest of his family in a small Afghan village.  The central question then is whether or not brother and sister will ever reunite.  Two of the other story lines involve young girls with medical issues.  Roshi has a cracked skull and gains the sympathy of two cousins, Timur and Idris, both of whom have the means to get her the neurosurgery that she needs.  Idris resents Timur and the flamboyant manner in which he makes known his many good works.  Timur's lack of humility, however, is of no consequence to those he helps; their gratitude is boundless.  I get it:  it's better to perform acts of kindness and brag about it than to do nothing at all.  The other girl is Thalia.  Her plight inspires Markos to abandon photography and pursue a career in plastic surgery, the spoils of which allow him to correct cleft palates in poverty-stricken areas.  The strongest image that I will take away from this book is that of a child horribly disfigured by a dog and whose mother can barely bring herself to look at her.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013


You won't have to spend much time reading this very short novel, but digesting it may take a little longer.  Esperanza is a teenager who doesn't like her name.  This is one of the many things we learn about her, as she acquaints us with her neighbors, mostly women, ashamed, abused, diseased, or locked away--stuck in situations that they can never overcome--in a Latino section of Chicago.  Her family's house is not what she or her parents had yearned for, but it's a step up from the rentals with apathetic landlords that they've endured in the past.  Except for her Papa, the men are not good for much of anything except dance partners.  Mostly, though we learn about Esperanza's hopes, dreams, friendships, and at least one traumatic episode in her life.  She vows not to become a teenaged single mother like some of the girls she knows and tells her story, as well as theirs, in a series of very short narratives.  Although the ending is hopeful, I would have liked a little more laughter or at least some characters that served as role models or positive influences, rather than just examples of what not to do.  Where does Esperanza get her gumption?  I'm still not sure, but at least she has some.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


Helen Fielding has a new Bridget Jones book coming out, and so I need to get caught up.  Bridget Jones' Diary was refreshing and funny, but this sequel seemed a little tired and silly.  It was too much of a good thing, I guess.  We have a standard plot here:  girl gets boy, girl loses boy, and girl gets boy back.  The "boy" in question is Mark Darcy, no relation to Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice, although both are played by Colin Firth in movies.  Hence, Bridget scores an interview with the real Colin Firth, which seemed superfluous to the plot, but I'm eager to see how the moviemakers handled this encounter.  (Actually, they left it out altogether—smart move.)  Bridget's parents are just as kooky as ever, and Bridget lands in jail in Thailand after inadvertently getting mixed up in a drug smuggling attempt.  Her plight at least opens the door for reconciliation with Mark, ever the hero, when he engineers her release.  Jealousy and insecurity seem to thwart this couple, who seem completely mismatched anyway.  On the other hand, maybe they complete each other, or fill each other's gaps, depending on which movie tagline you want to apply.  She needs his common sense and stability, while he just needs a little levity and adventure, which Bridget provides in spades.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

TELL THE WOLVES I'M HOME by Carol Rifka Brunt

Fourteen-year-old June Elbus's beloved uncle Finn, a renowned artist, has AIDS, and in the 1980s that was a death sentence.  His passing leaves June bereft of her best friend, and now it's tax season, when her CPA parents are too busy to notice.  Toby, Finn's live-in partner, steps in to fill the void as June's new confidant.  Everyone blames him for passing along the HIV virus to Finn, and consequently he's a persona-non-grata at the Elbus house, as if having AIDS hasn't made him enough of a pariah already.  As June gets to know him, she discovers that some of her favorite memories of Finn are more indicative of Toby's influence than of Finn's personality.  Meanwhile, June's older, prettier, smarter, and more talented sister, Greta, seems to be self-destructing, even as she is getting attention from Broadway casting personnel for her upcoming performance in her high school's production of South Pacific.  Greta becomes increasingly more vindictive and condescending toward June, such that at times June cannot decipher whether Greta is being genuinely nice or just setting June up for ridicule and embarrassment.  At the center of the plot is a portrait of the two girls that Finn completed just before his death.  The painting endures some transformations that I found to be somewhat unlikely, from a reality standpoint, and even a little bit appalling, but I think the author has something symbolic going on here that I can't quite fathom.  The two sisters share ownership of the painting, and it brings them together in an odd way, outside of the fact that they're together on the canvas.  There may also be a message here about making your mark and expressing your individuality, even against a backdrop of near perfection; everyone has something to offer.  Fortunately, no one has monkeyed with the perfection of this novel, which I savored from start to finish.