Wednesday, November 27, 2013

THE GATE HOUSE by Nelson DeMille

The Gold Coast is my favorite Nelson DeMille novel.  Therefore, I felt that I owed it to myself to read the sequel.  The length, however, seems a bit self-indulgent on the author's part. I enjoy the witticisms of the narrator, John Sutter, but the play-by-play of his every move is a little much.  In fact, nothing much happens over the course of almost 600 pages.  The late Elmore Leonard refused to review books that were more than 300 pages, and I'm with him on that.  Actually, I can go 350 with no problem, but I digress.  John Sutter has returned after a 10-year hiatus to the estate where he once lived with his wife, Susan.  Susan somehow managed to avoid trial for murdering her lover, Frank Bellarosa, a Mafia don and government witness, 10 years ago.  Now I ask you:  Why would John Sutter reunite with this woman?  She must be really beautiful and really good in bed, but even so, I felt that John was a little hasty in kissing and making up.  Plus, since her very wealthy parents dislike him intensely, they will surely cut off Susan's allowance and her inheritance if John and Susan remarry.  John knows that Susan can't possibly adjust to a more frugal lifestyle, and what if their two adult children lose their trust funds?  John is an attorney, but he's unemployed at the moment, and his past affiliation with the Mafia and a wife who literally got away with murder may have a negative impact on his future opportunities.  This just seemed like so much silliness, especially in contrast to The Gold Coast, which was such a good story about how seductive power can be.  The plot of this book also has a darker angle, in that Bellarosa's son Anthony wants to avenge his father's death.  This means trouble for Susan, who can't quite fathom that anyone would want to kill her.  See what I mean?  She's a little ditsy, and I just couldn't quite buy that John would so easily and quickly forgive and forget.  He lost my respect by doing so.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

THE LIFEBOAT by Charlotte Rogan

Books about lifeboats seem to appeal to me.  I loved Life of Pi and Unbroken, and this novel is no exception.  The story takes place two years after the sinking of the Titanic, when another ocean liner has wrecked in the Atlantic.  Grace finds herself in a crowded lifeboat with 37 other passengers, plus a seaman named Mr. Hardie.  Hardie displays an obvious distaste for the likes of the over-privileged survivors in the boat and takes some snide pleasure in rationing their supplies and directing them in various chores.  He's a distasteful and shady character, but I had some difficulty in classifying him as an outright villain, even as he forbids the others from hauling other survivors out of the water into their already over-crowded lifeboat.  Herein lies the crux of the story:  How far should we go to protect ourselves in a life-and-death situation like this?  Do the usual laws of a civilized society apply, or do the laws of nature, such as survival of the fittest, seem more appropriate?  Or, more accurately, should a few be sacrificed in order to save the majority?  This question becomes more and more pressing as the days stretch into weeks, and the characters become more contentious, aligning themselves with competing factions.  One woman, Mrs. Grant, begins to form alliances with some of the other women, who outnumber the men, and threatens Mr. Hardie's authority.  The whole situation reminded me of William Golding's Lord of the Flies—the mounting desperation as the hope of being rescued diminishes, the uprising, the savagery, and the matter-of-fact manner in which the author describes a climactic, unthinkable action by a group of human beings.  We know from the beginning that Grace faces a court trial after being rescued, but I can't possibly judge these characters.  For what it's worth, the book is not particularly gruesome; it's an adventure that will raise questions in your mind as to what you would have done in Grace's position.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

THE ANTHOLOGIST by Nicholson Baker

I have to admit this book put me to sleep at times.  (On page 205, the narrator accuses the reader of "probably falling asleep."  Guilty as charged.)  Other than that small failing, it's a pretty neat book.  Paul Chowder is a poet who laments the loss of rhyming poetry.  He's compiling an anthology of some of his favorites, called Only Rhyme, but he's stuck on the introduction.  In fact, his procrastination sends his girlfriend Roz packing.  She knows Paul's potential but becomes exasperated with his inertia.  Toward the end of the book, he compares writing poetry to mowing the lawn.  You can start anywhere on the lawn, and you'll finish eventually, but he finds he gets bogged down in his writing, not knowing where to start.  Other than his poetry obsession, Paul's life is pretty pathetic--buying a badminton set but not having anyone to play with, getting excited about a new broom, and observing the habits of a mouse, who wouldn't be a bad pet actually if he didn't leave droppings in the kitchen.  That's about all there is, as far as the plot is concerned, but the book is chock-full of Paul's musings on a variety of both well-known and little-known poets, their work, and their demons.  He brands free verse poets as basically lazy, and that may be a pretty accurate label, given that his own poetry doesn't rhyme.  This book gave me a greater appreciation of poetry, especially of meter and the necessary "rest" at the end of most lines, than any English class.  Paul answers an interesting question at a reading about whether one gets a better appreciation of a poem by reading it silently from the page or by listening to someone read it aloud.  He makes a case for both as distinct experiences.  Listening to a poem allows one to enjoy the rhythm without knowing the length of the poem, while reading it from the page offers a visual appreciation of the stanzas—and the ability to see the enjambments.  I love new vocabulary words.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013


It's the 1920s, and Tom Sherbourne is the new lighthouse keeper for Janus Rock, off the eastern coast of Australiia.  His wife Isabel has just suffered her third miscarriage when a boat runs aground on their island with a dead man aboard and an infant who is very much alive.  She persuades Tom not to report the boat or the body so that they can keep and raise the baby.  Tom, however, is wracked with guilt, and serious trouble ensues when they find out who the baby's parents are.  There are two things that I really did not like about this novel.  First of all, I don't quite buy it when someone like Tom, of unblemished integrity, does something really wrong.  He's not a weak person, but the moment when the baby arrives is his defining moment, and he makes a very stupid choice.  Isabel, on the other hand, is grief-stricken from the loss of three children and sees this baby as her gift from God.  She has obviously become unhinged, and Tom knows this.  OK, she turns out to be a very good mother, but I was very disappointed in Tom's failure to do the right thing in a timely manner.  After a few years have passed, the charade has gone on too long and returning the baby to her biological family is a messy proposition.  The other thing that I did not like about the plot is how it hinges on an unlikely coincidence.  The timing of the baby's arrival, shortly after Isabel's most recent miscarriage, makes the substitution of one baby for another all too easy to pull off.  That said, morbid curiosity drove me to keep reading, and I have to say that I rather liked the ending—not too sour and not too sweet.