Wednesday, December 31, 2014


A.J. is a thirty-something small town bookstore owner whose wife has recently died in a car accident.  A.J. has always been a bit persnickety, but now he is downright rude, especially to a publisher’s rep named Amelia, aka Amy, who has replaced the now deceased long-time rep with whom A.J. had somewhat of a rapport.  The disappearance of a rare book valued at around half a million dollars depresses A.J. even further.  Then an abandoned toddler named Maya comes along, and A.J. decides to adopt the child rather than give her up to foster care.  I suppose this decision proves that A.J. is not completely heartless, but I found it to be way out of character.  The mystery of the missing book was certainly not spellbinding, but the novel does have its highlights, sprinkled among all the warm and fuzzy moments.  Everyone except A.J. and Amy’s mother is just too perfect.  Even A.J.’s best friend, a cop, becomes an avid reader and organizes his own book club.  Really?  A.J. provides the only saltiness to a book that is overly sweet, like a cupcake that’s heavy on the icing.  A.J. is definitely a book snob, with a preference for short stories, and I will say that I enjoyed all of A.J.’s opinions on books and authors and especially his commentary on a different short story at the beginning of each chapter.  The writing style, is not particularly elegant, with no particularly profound passages or seismic revelations, but the unpretentious style fits the comfy storyline.  One reviewer likened this novel to THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY, and I had pretty much the same opinion of that book.  I need to stay away from novels that promise too much quaintness and not enough grit.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

THE POSSIBILITIES by Kaui Hart Hemmings

Everyone grieves differently, and Sarah St. John is still reeling from the death of her 22-year-old son Cully in an avalanche.  Sarah, a single mother, raised her son in her home town, which happens to be the ski resort town of Breckenridge, Colorado.  She tries to resume her job as a newscaster for segments targeting tourists in hotel rooms, but she clearly isn’t ready to face the public in quite so public a manner.  Sarah never considered marrying Cully’s father Billy, whom she viewed as nothing more than a fling, but he and her widowed father Lyle are providing all the emotional support they can, given their own grief.  Plus, Sarah’s best friend Suzanne is emotionally distraught over her husband’s having walked out on their marriage, so that Suzanne is too preoccupied with her own troubles to be much help to Sarah.  Everyone is leaning on everyone else, and then an enigmatic young woman named Kit drifts into their lives with some pretty shocking news.  The world is full of surprises for Sarah, who discovers little by little that Cully had a tighter bond with his father and grandfather than Sarah had thought, not to mention some secret extracurricular activities.  While the rest of the town is tiptoeing around Sarah, Lyle and Billy are honest but compassionate and aren’t afraid to use a little levity now and then to lighten everyone’s mood.  Sarah responds not so much with sadness as with anger, and the result is dialog that I couldn’t get enough of.  (Don’t miss Lyle’s hilarious comments about Sarah’s cross-eyed ex-boyfriend.)  This may be Sarah’s story, but the other characters, especially Billy and Lyle, were more appealing to me, with their wit and ability to roll with the punches.  Kit and Sarah are both at a crossroads, in which Kit provokes Sarah into drawing on her own experience in order to redirect her own life and consequently help Kit to do the same.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


Author P.D. James passed away recently, and, since I’d never read one of her novels, I picked up THE CHILDREN OF MEN. I saw the movie years ago, and, although I don’t remember it very well, I think that the movie and the book share a basic premise, and that’s about all.  That premise is that humans are no longer able to procreate, and the last generation is now in their 20s.  I think the whole scenario is intriguing, and James’s imagining of its hopelessness and the unfortunate consequences is on target.  If anything, with the end of the human race on the horizon, I might expect people to behave even more badly than they do in this novel.  Theo Faron lost his only child in an accident in which Theo was at fault, and he has basically cut himself off from everyone emotionally.  Society is deteriorating, and Theo’s cousin Xan is in charge. Then one of Theo’s former students, a young woman named Julian, introduces him to a handful of people who want Theo to intercede with Xan to effect some reforms.  Xan is uncooperative, but Theo still believes than Xan is trying to do the best he can.  Months later the band of revolutionaries seek Theo out again, proclaiming that they are harboring a pregnant woman.  Her safety is their number one priority, and they don’t feel that they can trust Xan.  The movie was released during the Christmas season, and I remember thinking that the Christian overtones were obvious—a baby born in less than ideal surroundings who can potentially save the world.  These parallels are not so apparent here, although one member of the group dies so that the others can live, and James makes the Jesus reference crystal clear in this case.  A savior dies and a savior is born, maybe?  I don’t know if religious symbolism is a hallmark of her other books or not, but there are several conversations in this one, questioning the existence of God.  Bottom line:  the book was rather slow moving, and perhaps I should have chosen one of James’s mysteries as my first foray into her body of work.  On the plus side, there are reams of wise and thought-provoking passages in this book.  “The world is changed not by the self-regarding, but by men and women prepared to make fools of themselves.”

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

POMPEII by Robert Harris

Attilius is the new engineer in charge of the aqueduct for the towns at the base of Vesuvius in 79 A.D.  When the water suddenly stops flowing, he sets out to make the repairs, north of Pompeii.  There’s a simple but handy map at the beginning of the book, and I flipped back to it repeatedly to get the lay of the land.  Also, the author prefaces each chapter with an appropriate quote from an authoritative text about the behavior of an erupting volcano.  Anyway, an aqueduct engineer seems to be an unlikely hero for an adventure/disaster/love story, but he has intellect and integrity, and he’s right in the thick of things.  He makes some unsettling discoveries about his predecessor, who mysteriously vanished, and knowledge can be a dangerous thing.  The author paints such a vivid picture of Pompeii at the time, with all its decadence and barbarism, in what passed for civilization at the time.  If a natural disaster of this magnitude happened in this country today, I would expect there to be just as much panic and poor decision-making.  I don’t know if any political corruption would creep to the surface here, but this is fiction after all.  I’m sure scientists can draw some reasonably accurate conclusions about what happened in Pompeii as far as the physical destruction of the city, but I don’t think we can really know how the residents responded.  This book made up for what it lacked in character development by providing a captivating plot in a historical setting.  I can see why it was chosen for a recent study of fiction readers, proving once again how we can submerse ourselves in a story and come out with a greater understanding of ourselves and our fellow human beings.  Here’s a link to an article about that study: 

A movie entitled Pompeii came out last year, and I just watched that, but it is not based on this novel, unfortunately.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

SHANTARAM by Gregory David Roberts

A book has to be special to keep me interested for over 900 pages.  The Goldfinch was special, but this book is not.  In fact, it is to India what The Power of One is to South Africa—too long, too tedious, and too self-aggrandizing.  Lin is an Australian ex-heroin-addict in the 1980s who escaped from an Australian prison where he was serving time for armed robbery.  He amasses enough forged documents to transport himself to Bombay, where he encounters a colorful group of expats and makes a living connecting foreigners to drug dealers.  A mugging leaves him broke, and he moves into an illegal slum near his beloved Indian friend Prabaker.  Lin changes gears and starts dispensing first aid to his fellow slum dwellers but also strikes up a relationship with a local Afghani crime boss, who has his own agenda in his homeland.  An unknown betrayer sends Lin back to prison but this time in India, where conditions are beyond deplorable and wildly dangerous.  Lin survives all of this and lots, lots more.  I accept that there’s a lot of ground to cover here, but I don’t think the book would suffer if it were cut in half, although I still would not have loved it.  The characters are impossible to keep track of, partly because there are so many of them and partly because some of the names are so similar—Khaled and Khader, for example.  Judging from the author’s blurb, this novel is somewhat autobiographical, but I have to say that he paints himself as being almost superhuman in his ability to survive.  There are only 3 women characters of note, all three of whom may be prostitutes, and none of whom come across as real, three-dimensional women.  One plot device that I particularly did not like was that the author/narrator would frequently express his regret about how he reacted to a situation by warning us that his oversights would come back to haunt him later.  Lin, though, is quite three-dimensional himself, sharing with us his remorse, guilt, lust, pride, pain, vengefulness, and gratitude, through a series of perilous adventures.  I will say that the author has a very good ear for dialog, especially that of the English-speaking Indians, and I had to go to YouTube to see a demonstration of that Indian head waggle.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

ROOMS by Lauren Oliver

I’m not big on ghost stories, because they seem a little silly to me.  In this case, the ghosts are two women who inhabited the same house at different times.  The latest inhabitant, Richard Walker, has died, and his estranged family have come for the funeral and to clean out the house.  Ex-wife Caroline is the alcoholic mother of Trenton, a melancholy teenager, and his much older acerbic sister Minna, who has a toddler of her own.  Minna is basically a sex addict, but all three of these characters are so maladjusted that the ghosts, Alice and Sandra, seem relatively sane by comparison.  Sandra died in the house of a gunshot wound, and Alice’s memories are equally depressing, without such a violent finale.  As you can see, this is not exactly an upbeat story.  It has a few twists but nothing really jaw-dropping, and I kept having to back up to see which of the ghosts was narrating.  Their stories don’t directly relate to the lives of the living, and the author made such an effort to delay telling us Alice’s and Sandra’s histories that the shock value had lost most of its punch, and the histories were too segmented for me to become immersed in.  Only Richard really seemed to have had a zest for living, and now he’s gone.  Also, our view of him is skewed by the warped opinions of his family, so that we never have a real grasp of who he was.  Trenton is the one we root for, but with this bunch surrounding him, he doesn’t really stand a chance.  A third ghost joins the party late in the book.  Trenton is aware of her presence and finds her intriguing enough to give him a reason to keep on living, but, ironically, she beckons to Trenton to come join her on the other side.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


Florence Gordon has a lot in common with Olive Kitteridge.  In both books the title character is a feisty, sharp-tongued, snobbish, older woman who tells it like she sees it.  Florence is a feminist writer, known only to a few faithful followers until her latest book receives a glowing review in the NY Times.  She enlists her granddaughter Emily as her assistant, but Emily is the big winner in this uneasy relationship.  Florence never softens, but Emily begins to see Florence as a role model for standing up for herself and finds that she can dish it out just as well as Florence when the situation calls for the blunt truth.  Florence does, however, harbor a secret that would invite all sorts of fawning and sympathy if she were to disclose it, and sympathy is the last thing she wants.  There’s one scene where Florence unmercifully dresses down the volunteer who serves as her driver for a book-signing event.  When Dolly, the volunteer, tries to persuade Florence to read her manuscript, we know that she is in store for a tongue-lashing.  Dolly accepts her punishment, however, with grace and good humor, and Florence finds herself admiring this woman’s aplomb.  No one is exempt from Florence’s disapproval, including her son, Daniel, who is a well-educated cop, and his wife Janine, who is an overly enthusiastic fan of Florence’s work.  Florence’s ex-husband Saul tries to enlist Florence’s help in resurrecting his career, but you can imagine how that discussion goes.  There are several sparkling conversations in this book in which Florence always has the upper hand, until her final verbal battle with Emily, in which Emily proves that she has learned from the master how to hold her own.  Certainly the dialog is the star of this novel, eliciting cringes from the reader as we wonder how Florence has any bridges left to burn.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014


This is my first Murakami novel, and I have to say this:  He needs a better translator.  The dialog was unnatural, and the smattering of unnecessary split infinitives was annoying.  I have to blame the author, though, for the zillion loose ends not tidied up by the end of the novel.  In high school Tsukuru finds himself joining 2 other men and 2 women in a very tight-knit group of friends.  Tsukuru is the only one of the five who goes away to college, and soon one of the men in the group tells him that the group is severing ties with Tsukuru completely, with no further explanation.  Tsukuru is dumbfounded but makes no effort to find out why the group has so unceremoniously dumped him.  He goes into a tailspin and contemplates death until another young man befriends him and drags him out his funk.  In his 30s, Tsukuru meets Sara and becomes romantically attached to her.  She, however, feels that Tsukuru’s past is interfering with his ability to sustain a close relationship, and she insists that he visit the other 4 members of his old clique to find out why they ousted him.  What ensues is not so much a pilgrimage as an awakening as to how the truth will set you free.  Tsukuru’s self-esteem ironically has suffered for all these years over a schism partly brought about by his perceived emotional strength, relative to the other members of the group.  Auras and erotic dreams fuel Tsukuru’s self-loathing and, coupled with a particularly odd tale about death, lend this book a sort of otherworldly atmosphere that does feel culturally peculiar and foreign, despite the universal themes.  I recommend that you take this journey with Tsukuru, as long as you’re not expecting closure.  Colorless it is not.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014


Piper Kerman may not be one of the best writers in the world, but her work here is good enough.  And the subject matter is an eye opener.  I don’t even mind that she’s capitalizing on a serious mistake of her youth to produce this revealing portrait of a minimum security women’s prison. I have not seen a single episode of the TV series based on this memoir, but I now have a pretty clear idea of why it’s popular.  If you think a women’s prison is all cat fights among lesbians, you would be dead wrong.  Quite the contrary.  Most of the women Piper meets on the inside would be living productive lives on the outside if they were given half a chance.  Unfortunately, they have neither Kerman’s resources nor her extensive, caring, and extremely loyal support from friends and family.  Kerman makes sure that her reader understands that prison is not a happy place, especially for those women serving a decade or more with little hope for a better life after their release.  Kerman’s sentence of 15 months is not what brings her to the realization of the impact of her crime of transporting drug money. Rather, she sees how illegal drugs have kept so many women in prison, often distanced from their children, and that these women are often repeat offenders.  Kerman’s keen observations make a strong case for the cessation of the war on drugs, because the U.S. government is spending billions of dollars on room and board for women who pose no threat to society.  What’s even more striking is how these women form makeshift families in prison and do all they can to help their fellow inmates adjust and cope.  Theirs is a mostly congenial sisterhood where everyone has to bury their rage at the system so as not to jeopardize their ultimate goal--freedom.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014


Henry Flagler, along with John D. Rockefeller, founded Standard Oil, and became a multi-millionaire.  According to him, he would have died a rich man if it hadn’t been for Florida.  As a recent transplant to the Sunshine State, I have to say that I’m glad he spent so much of his fortune here.  He dredged Miami Harbor to put that city on the map and connected it to the rest of the country with railroad tracks.  Long before Disney came to Orlando, Flagler built several resort hotels, making Florida a destination, even before air conditioning made the state inhabitable in the hot, sticky summers.  His claim to fame, though, and the subject of this book, is the building of a rail line connecting Key West to the mainland.  I know nothing about structural engineering, but I can still appreciate what a feat he and his men accomplished, proving the naysayers wrong and battling mosquitoes and hurricane after hurricane.  Weather forecasting was virtually non-existent in the early 1900s, and Flagler soon found that floating dormitories for his workers could become watery coffins.   He pushed on, though, adapting to the elements and rebuilding when wind and water destroyed months of work.  His plans to make Key West a shipping hub did not pan out, but the tourists came in droves, so that when a 1935 hurricane blew out sections of the Seven-Mile Bridge, the federal government stepped in to replace and repair.  I’m not a big history buff, but I can’t deny the monumental contributions that Flagler made to the state of Florida, and I have to wonder if native Floridians are familiar with his accomplishments.  Plus, he began the “railroad across the ocean” after he was well into his seventies, thus becoming one of the early geriatrics to make his home in Florida.  However, a retiree he was not, and I applaud his energy, his vision, his determination, and his audacity.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

THE BLOOD OF FLOWERS by Anita Amirrezvani

In seventeenth century Iran, our unnamed narrator has reached the marriageable age of fourteen.  When her father dies, she and her mother basically become servants in the home of her father’s half-brother and his tyrannical wife.  The young narrator makes so many unforgiveable blunders that she is forced into a temporary marriage, which will bring in a little money, but the loss of her virginity will make finding a permanent husband that much more unlikely.  The upside is that the narrator is becoming an accomplished Persian rug maker, with some excellent advice regarding design and color from her uncle, who makes carpets for the Shah.  Finally, our narrator’s transgressions, which include lying and forgery, invoke the ire of the uncle’s wife to the point that she and her mother have to vacate the premises.  To say that our girl is impetuous and naïve is an understatement.  Considering the limited options available to women and the precariousness of the narrator’s situation, her behavior is bewilderingly outrageous and more than a little exasperating.  In fact, I found her to be not quite believable in this regard.  She foolishly puts her and her mother’s situation at risk time and time again, apparently thinking each time that no one will discover her deceits.  Even a fourteen-year-old should be able to learn from her mistakes.  When she destroys a rug that she was making, knowing that her uncle had paid for the wool yarn, what does she think will happen?  The other characteristic of this book that I did not like is that the author frequently interrupts the story with an Iranian fable, not all of which are authentic.  These are way too lengthy and not at all vital to the plot.  I realize that the author is trying to evoke a mood appropriate to the setting, but I read each of these tales with the sense that I was wasting my time.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014


A cool group of teenagers at an artsy summer camp dub Julie Jacobson “Jules,” and the new name fits her new attitude and aspirations.  The other members of the group have various talents, but Ethan, an unattractive genius at animation is the standout, and he has a thing for Jules.  She, on the other hand, has eyes only for Goodman, ironically named, since he turns out not to be a “good man” at all.  Goodman’s beautiful sister Ash becomes fast friends with Jules, and they remain close into adulthood, even as they become mothers at almost the same time.   Their lives, however, could not be more different, as Ash is now the wife of the enormously successful Ethan, while Jules has married Dennis, a lovable guy but an outsider to Jules’s more polished friends.  Two prevailing themes struck me as intriguing in this book.  One is the question of how do social and economic inequity affect friendship.  Ash and Jules had very different social circles growing up, and their increasingly divergent lifestyles cause Jules to lose confidence in her value as a friend to Ash.  Would a large monetary gift lift Jules and Dennis out of their constant financial struggle, or would it make them feel even more resentful and inadequate?  The other theme that I noticed was that of loyalty.  Ash finds herself in a sticky spot where she has to choose whether to align herself with her husband or with her parents and brother.  This is not the kind of choice most of us ever have to make, and, honestly, the choice is as much one of right and wrong as it is a choice of loyalty.  I get it that so many parents have blinders over their eyes when it comes to the wrongdoings of their children, but Ash’s staunch support of her brother reflects badly on her character.  Jules, unfortunately, gets caught in the middle, and although the issue at hand is in some ways tangential to the plot, it’s a prime indicator of each character’s moral compass.  Jules finds herself in Ash’s court, refusing to acknowledge that she’s on the wrong team.  Will Jules ever develop a backbone?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014


This book is for readers who need a break from sad stories.  It’s a marshmallow of a novel, and, unfortunately, I’m not a big marshmallow eater.  All the tragedy happens at the beginning, and, except for one or two ugly incidents, everything just keeps getting better and better for CeeCee Honeycutt.  Raised by a mother who is severely mentally ill, 12-year-old CeeCee’s life has been no picnic.  Everyone at school makes fun of her because of her mother, who still thinks she’s a 1951 beauty queen.  (It’s the 1960s, but didn’t we have Social Services back then?)  Whisked from Ohio to Savannah, Georgia, after her mother’s bizarre demise, CeeCee embarks on a new life as a Southern Belle.  Fortunately, CeeCee’s move takes place at the beginning of the summer, so that she can get to know her very wealthy guardian, Aunt Tootie, and Tootie’s beloved black housekeeper Oletta.  I’m not opposed to an upbeat novel now and then, but there’s just not enough conflict here, unless you consider a cat fight between two women at a garden party conflict.   The writing is not up to snuff, either, particularly in comparison to the last book I read—Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.  I get that the narrator is a 12-year-old, but I’ve found a couple of 5-year-old narrators (Room and The Bear) to be spellbinding.  This book’s problem, though, is with the plot more so than the writing.  The People magazine reviewer, Liza Hamm, gave this book a very positive review, but she also says, “Not a whole lot happens….”  I expect a book without much plot to have compelling characters, but Aunt Tootie, Oletta, and Mrs. Odell are all just too sugary sweet for words.  If you’re looking for a cream puff to offset some novels that left a bad taste in your mouth, then this might be just the ticket, but I need something salty or spicy after this.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt

Teenager Theo Decker loses his mother in a museum bombing in New York, and this event pretty much defines his life.  First, there’s the obvious loss of his mother, and his father is a deadbeat dad, whereabouts unknown.  Then there’s the matter of an old man, mortally injured in the explosion, who gives Theo a ring and some encouragement to make off with a 17th century painting—The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius.  Finally, Theo has a bad case of PTSD that causes him to find solace in drugs and alcohol, but actually he probably has a death wish.  At first, he can’t quite grasp the idea that he can’t continue living in the apartment that he shared with his mother.  For a time, he lives with his school chum Andy Barbour, whose family is dysfunctional but with mega financial resources to cushion the blow.  Next Theo finds himself in the Las Vegas outburbs where he becomes fast friends with Boris, who has also lost his mother.  Finally, he takes a bus back to New York, painting in tow, along with a small dog, hidden in a paper bag.  Theo’s next living situation is his best so far—with Hobie, furniture restorer and business partner of the old man who died in the museum.  I was not surprised to learn that Tartt is a great admirer of Dickens, because Theo is basically a hapless kid, surrounded by colorful but not-so-helpful influences, who finds his niche in the world by underhandedly selling Hobie’s rebuilt antiques as the real thing.  He gets Hobie out of debt, at the expense of potentially sullying his reputation.  When a sinister character starts threatening Theo with revealing all of his dirty deeds, including Theo’s theft of a certain lost work of art, Theo’s world starts to unravel.  Our next setting is Amsterdam, where things really get dicey.  Although most of the novel takes place in New York, sort of a safe haven for Theo, the seedy and contrasting backdrops of Amsterdam (dark and watery) and Nevada (sunny and desolate) make for perfect locales for a variety of criminal activities and reading pleasures.  Certainly the length of this book is a bit of a downside, but I never felt that reading it was a chore.  On the contrary, I had to find out if Theo could get his head on straight, despite Boris’s unexpected intrusions, luring Theo back to the dark side. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


This is what is known as an epistolary novel, but such an adjective sounds way too serious for this book.  It’s a manic whirlwind of hilarious emails, blog posts, letters, teenage musings, transcripts of conversations, medical bills, police reports—you name it.  Bernadette is a former Los Angeles architect who specialized in the use of local building materials.  Now she’s in Seattle—a city she detests and mercilessly skewers—and has abandoned her career for reasons to be revealed later in the book.  Her husband Elgin is a rising star at Microsoft, heading up Bill Gates’ favorite project.  Their daughter Bee has requested a trip to Antarctica as a reward for her topnotch academic performance.  When something seems too good to be true, like this perfect family or a virtual assistant who charges 75 cents an hour, trouble must be lurking just around the corner.  Then when nextdoor neighbor Audrey Griffin demands that Bernadette cut back her infringing blackberry vines, Bernadette complies, but a domino effect of chaos and hilarity ensues.  Audrey is so preoccupied with making the perfect impression that she’s oblivious to her son’s misdeeds. Bernadette, on the other hand, is borderline reclusive and delightfully wacky.  She is the enigmatic force that drives this story, and we finally get a close-up glimpse of her when we learn the details of her architectural accomplishments.  Her family’s wheels come off when Elgin becomes a little too close to his administrative assistant and begins questioning whether Bernadette’s antics are an indication of a mental breakdown.  Common sense is apparently not his forte, nor Bernadette’s either, for that matter, and thus Bee, wise beyond her years, has to step in to restore order.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

FLIGHT BEHAVIOR by Barbara Kingsolver

Dellarobia is on her way to a hunting cabin to meet the telephone man for a tryst, when she encounters an astonishing scene in the Appalachian mountains.  The trees appear to be covered in flames, but there’s obviously no fire.  This vision, which is really hordes of monarch butterflies, gives her pause to rethink her plans.  She turns back to her unhappy life with a passive husband and two small children on a sheep farm owned by her in-laws.  Mother-in-law Hester is a taciturn woman who seems chilly toward her own grandchildren and downright hostile toward Dellarobia.  Near the end of the book we find that she has her reasons for such a dismal outlook on life, but, in the meantime, the butterflies become a national sensation.  Ovid Byron, a scientist/professor from Arizona, sweeps in with a few assistants to try to determine why the butterflies have chosen to roost in Tennessee, where the winter cold will surely kill them and possibly annihilate the entire species.  The author uses this fictional phenomenon for two purposes.  First, Ovid becomes a vehicle for educating the locals about global warming, which they’ve heard of but don’t believe in.  The second purpose is that of providing a metaphor for opening up the outside world to Dellarobia and her young son Preston.  It’s a minor miracle how the author touches on so many themes in this book.  Dellarobia bristles at the condescending attitude held by both the scientific community and the press toward her neighbors, but she’s a quick study and soon grasps the gravity of the situation for the butterflies, as a microcosm of a planet whose ecosystems have gone awry.  Kingsolver’s prose is luscious, never preachy, and the dialog is crisp and witty.  An outsider handing out pamphlets, admonishing people to reduce their carbon footprint, gets a rude awakening when he recites his list of suggestions to Dellarobia.  She’s never been in a plane, has never bought bottled water, and hasn’t eaten in a restaurant in two years, demonstrating that her contribution to the problem is meager in comparison to that of urban dwellers.  Despite its weighty topic, this novel has a lot of heart and humor, and I embraced everything about it with delight.

Monday, September 15, 2014

PIGS IN HEAVEN by Barbara Kingsolver

  Annawake Fourkiller, a Cherokee lawyer, recognizes Turtle from a TV news clip, and wants to return her to the tribe.  However, Taylor adopted Turtle after a woman dumped Turtle in Taylor’s car.  Now Taylor and Turtle are inseparable, and they try to disappear.  Taylor soon finds that life on the lam is no picnic, especially since no employer is going to allow Turtle to come along, and day care options are non-existent.  When Taylor’s mother Alice seeks out her long-lost Cherokee cousin, Alice becomes romantically involved with Cash, who turns out to be Turtle’s biological grandfather.  Obviously, there’s got to be some middle ground here that will make everyone happy.  I found it hard to side with Annawake on this conundrum, given that Turtle was physically and sexually abused before she found asylum in Taylor’s car.  Losing their children to outsiders, though, has long been a sticking point with the tribe, who want to make sure that their kids understand their heritage.  Losing one’s ancestral identity seems to me to be a small price to pay for personal safety and well-being, but Turtle’s abusers are out of the picture, and her grandfather is a kind man who has long been deprived of contact with his granddaughter.  This is a sticky situation, and Kingsolver handles it with her usual compassion and tenderness.  My favorite character is Jax, Taylor’s laidback boyfriend, who is honest to a fault and loves Taylor wholeheartedly.  What’s not to love about a musician whose band is called Irascible Babies?  Taylor and Turtle could do a lot worse.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


The Grimké sisters, Sarah and Angelina, grew up in Charleston during the early 1800s.  Their father, a judge and planter, owned slaves, but Sarah and Angelina became abolitionist spokeswomen, who also became advocates for women’s rights.  This novel focuses primarily on Sarah and a mostly fictional slave, Hetty, nicknamed Handful.  I did not know until I read the Author’s Note at the end that Sarah and her sister were actual historical figures, but I began to suspect that some of the events were factual when the author started sprinkling the names of Whittier, Emerson, and Thoreau into the text.  We meet Sarah and Handful when they are both young girls.  Sarah has two goals:  to free Handful and to become an attorney.  As a child, she has no authority to free a slave, and as a girl, she has no chance of studying law.  Instead, she has to watch helplessly the atrocities her mother inflicts on Handful and Handful’s mother.  As an adult, Sarah goes North and converts to Quakerism, since the Quakers oppose slavery and  seem to embrace women as ministers.  Her quest to become a Quaker minister ultimately derails her marriage plans, and she remains single, while her sister marries abolitionist leader Theodore Weld.  The author weaves several historical events into her plot, including an aborted slave insurrection, led by a freed slave, and the use of quilts as tapestries documenting the lives of slaves who could not read and write.  Certainly the novel is well-written and engrossing, but even more admirable are the accomplishments of these two women, who predated Harriett Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and possibly influenced that author.  Sarah and Angelina Grimké were not just thinkers; they were doers who endured quite a bit of antagonism for being outspoken women and for espousing human rights.  I’m so glad I met them through this novel.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014


A 2-week vacation in Mallorca could be just the ticket for mending all sorts of family rifts.  Franny and Jim Post are joined by 28-year-old son Bobby and 18-year-old daughter Sylvia.  Bobby’s on-and-off girlfriend Carmen comes along, much to Franny’s dismay, as do Charles and Lawrence, a gay couple hoping to adopt a child.  Charles and Franny are such close friends that Charles even watches Franny bathe, as she seeks his advice regarding her cheating husband. (I have to say that I found this scene to be a little odd.)  Jim has been fired from his job for having an affair with an intern, and Sylvia is reeling from having lost her boyfriend to her best friend.  Sylvia, unlike Bobby, has an inkling of what’s going on with her parents, and their marital uncertainty trickles down to her, further causing her footing in the world to be a little unsteady.  She plans to reinvent herself when she starts college at Brown in the fall, and in the meantime hopes to lose her virginity to her handsome Spanish tutor.  Bobby is the least likeable of the lot, with his churlish behavior and atrocious judgment when it comes to money.  His and Carmen’s relationship is probably the most busted of all, and with good reason.  Charles and Lawrence are the relationship role models here, dealing with their own fidelity issues, discussing Charles’s unusually tight friendship with Franny, and contemplating their future role as parents.  There’s really not that much of a plot here; it’s definitely more of a character study, sort of a multi-generational Big Chill, where some relationships get mended, some get cemented, and some die on the vine.

Monday, September 1, 2014


Elsa Emerson is the youngest daughter in a family of thespians in rural Wisconsin in the 1920s.  After her beautiful older sister’s romance with a charismatic actor in the family’s theatre company ends in tragedy, the family goes into a tailspin.  Elsa grabs the first opportunity to escape to Hollywood, in the form of yet another charismatic actor, Gordon Pitts.  Gordon manages to land a studio contract with a steady income, while Laura puts her movie star ambitions on hold.  Pregnant with her second child, she catches the eye of Irving Green, a studio executive, who renames her Laura Lamont.  As Gordon’s career starts to wane, Laura’s takes off, and the two part ways, as Gordon becomes more and more seedy.  Irving begins to squire Laura around Hollywood, and soon the two are married.  Irving is basically a saint, and Laura loves him dearly.  Theirs is a storybook marriage—unusual by Hollywood standards.  Laura’s life as a celebrity, however, has its ups (an Academy Award) and downs (more family tragedies), and Laura’s coping mechanism is an addiction to barbiturates.  (Doesn’t this sound a little too familiar?)  Plus, the roles for women her age are not as plentiful as they were when she was younger, and she turns down a role as a mother, despite the fact that she has three children by now.  She reaches an all-time low when her best friend has to fire her from a ridiculous game show.  I enjoyed this book, with Laura and all of her foibles, but her journey is not all that uncommon:  Small town girl is discovered, marries a big shot, and then has to find her way back to who she really is.  She finds strength in her family, and I don’t mean the one in Wisconsin.  (Her mother has no complaint about her running off with Gordon but cannot forgive her for changing her name and marrying a Jew.)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

THE PAINTED GIRLS by Cathy Marie Buchanan

In the late 1800s in Paris, an impoverished teenage girl could earn a small wage in a variety of occupations:  as a ballet dancer, as an artist’s model, as a washerwoman, and, of course, in a brothel.  In this tale of three fatherless sisters, Antoinette, Marie, and Charlotte manage to scrape by, while their mother finds solace in drink.  Antoinette washes out as a dancer, while Marie and Charlotte show promise and advance to the stage.  Marie is the only one of the three who can read, and when the newspaper publishes an article about how a person’s facial features can predict their behavior, Marie feels that her monkey-like face has doomed her.  Antoinette, on the other hand, becomes infatuated with Emile, who, along with a cruel friend, is arrested for murder.  If Emile can escape the guillotine, he will be banished to New Caledonia, and Antoinette begins scheming to join him there.  One reviewer wrote that this book is part love story, but I don’t see it as that at all.  It is a story of the bond of sisters, united in their struggle to survive, and the rift that a boy can create.  In this case, Antoinette is blind to Emile’s flaws, while Marie sees nothing else.  I feared for these girls throughout the book.  They have no adult supervision or role models, and they do as they please:  visiting convicts in jail, modeling in the nude, going to bars, attending theatre productions, going to work at 4:00 am.  They’re like mini-adults but without the good judgment that comes with maturity and experience.  Ultimately, Marie makes a decision that widens the gap between her and Antoinette and has unforeseen consequences.  I love how, near the end, the author matches the frenetic pace of the story with paragraph-long chapters, alternating narrators, as she has all along.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


Harold Fry receives a note from a former work associate, Queenie Hennessy, who writes that she is dying of cancer.  His walk to post a reply soon becomes a journey to the hospice where Queenie resides—over 600 miles away.  He clings to the belief that Queenie will not die until he gets there, while his baffled wife Maureen waits at home.  Two parallel stories unfold.   One is that of the pilgrimage itself.  Harold refuses to outfit himself with suitable walking gear, has no cell phone, and eventually sends his wallet back to Maureen so that he can proceed without money.  Now he’s totally dependent on the kindness of strangers, and he encounters quite a few during his journey, acquiring a burgeoning entourage, who become somewhat of an argumentative albatross.  The backstory is that of a marriage gone stale and a son whom Harold believes he failed.  All of his family relationships are complicated, as is his relationship with Queenie, and the closer Harold gets to his destination, the more he reveals to the reader about his history.  He’s made some crucial mistakes in life, but as you might guess, his pilgrimage helps rectify some of those, but some have consequences that cannot be undone.  His rendezvous with Queenie does not unfold as I would have guessed, and the author cleverly conceals his son’s fate until the end.  Yes, this is a heartwarming story, but I didn’t find it to be particularly special.  Memorable?  Maybe.  I was also not fond of the writing style, which I found to be a little choppy, as if it were written for a somewhat unsophisticated audience.  Perhaps this “ordinary” style is intended to help connote the ordinary man that Harold is—at least before his extraordinary pilgrimage.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

THE OTHER TYPIST by Suzanne Rindell

Rose is a stenographer and typist for a New York City police precinct in the 1920s.  When the Prohibition Era dawns, her workload increases, and a new typist, Odalie, captures everyone’s attention, especially Rose’s.  Odalie is everything that Rose is not—daring, beautiful, and rich.  Soon Rose moves in with Odalie in her opulent hotel suite, but theirs is a very one-sided relationship, with Odalie paying all the bills and introducing Rose to hidden speakeasies and chic house parties.  Like Nora in Claire Messud’s The WomanUpstairs, Rose becomes totally bedazzled by her new friend.  She abandons all of her scruples in order to impress and satisfy Odalie.  The source of Odalie’s wealth could be a sugar daddy or family money or bootleg income.  When a young man claims to recognize Odalie from Newport, Odalie becomes visibly agitated.  The author frequently reminds us that Rose’s world is about to explode, because we know that she’s recounting all this from an institution, under the care of a psychiatrist.  I found this constant foreshadowing to be a little annoying and unnecessary.  I realize that the author uses this device to build suspense, but the plot is suspenseful enough, as we try to figure out who Odalie really is.  The ending, however, raises a bigger question:  Who is Rose?  Is she really so malleable, or does something darker lurk inside her?  I would rate this book with 5 stars if the ending were not completely undecipherable.  I would call it ambiguous, but that word implies two possibilities, and the ending of this book has at least three.  I imagine that this novel makes for an excellent book club discussion, with everyone sharing and defending his/her interpretation of what really happened.  I’m afraid that I don’t have a staunch opinion, as all scenarios seem to have their contradictions.  Reviewers have compared this novel to several others, but Rindell has taken the idea of an unreliable narrator to an extreme unmatched since Ian McEwan’s Atonement.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014


Since he wrote adventure novels, like Treasure Island and Kidnapped, I had pictured Robert Louis Stevenson as a robust, energetic man, but he was, in fact, in poor health for much of his life.  This novel focuses its attention mainly on his American wife, Fanny, who served as both his sounding board and his nurse.  The two meet while Fanny and her children are in France for art instruction, as a means of escaping her philandering husband Sam Osbourne.  Her youngest child dies while they are in Europe, and Fanny, wracked with grief and guilt that will haunt her for the rest of her life, returns to the States to try to patch up her marriage.  When Louis, as Stevenson is known to friends, receives a letter that Fanny has “brain fever,” he jeopardizes his own health to travel by boat and then overland train to California to see her.  After her divorce from Sam and marriage to Louis, Fanny, who suffers from seasickness on every ocean-going vessel, soon realizes that Louis thrives at sea.  They eventually settle down in Samoa, along with an entourage of family members, and at this point, the book loses steam.  Louis’s health becomes less precarious, and Fanny buries, at least for a while, her frustration with how Louis’s friends and admirers perceive her.  Throughout their lives, both of these characters wage personal battles.  Louis produces some of his most acclaimed work, including The StrangeCase of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, while bedridden.  Fanny, on the other hand, feels that she has sacrificed her own creative ambitions in order to support Louis’s career.  She, more than anyone else, is responsible for keeping Louis healthy enough to keep writing, and her suggestions completely reshape Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde into Stevenson’s seminal work.  She’s a strong woman, living in a time in which the literary world is largely closed to women.  This novel gives us good reason to appreciate her influence on Stevenson and to share in her personal dissatisfaction in not gleaning some of the accolades for herself.

Monday, August 4, 2014


When we refer to a “Jekyll and Hyde” personality, everyone knows what we mean.  The impact of this book is immeasurable, and it’s more of a novella in length.  I’ve just read it for the first time, as sort of a companion piece to Nancy Horan’s Under the Wide and Starry Sky about Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife Fanny.  I have no idea how historically accurate Horan’s novel is, but in her book Stevenson rips up the original manuscript and completely reworks this novel to incorporate his wife’s suggestions.  Stevenson tells the tale with 3 narrators, the last of which is Jekyll himself.  What I found most telling about this last narrative is that Dr. Jekyll does not really consider himself a good man.  In fact, he much prefers being the cruel but freer Mr. Hyde, who has no conscience and no concern for the well-being of others.  As Dr. Jekyll he has to bury (and “hyde”) his baser desires and sees this effort as a sort of bondage to convention.  In other words, Jekyll comes off as a sociopath who chooses to act like a person with real empathy for his fellow human beings, even though in reality he has none.  As Mr. Hyde, he undergoes a sort of hypnosis, and hypnotists tell us that they cannot override our consciences.   Stevenson chooses not to challenge our trust that a truly good person cannot be persuaded to do evil deeds.  I couldn’t help wondering, if the character enjoys being Hyde so much, how he motivates himself to revert to his Jekyll persona.  Since his physical appearance changes, I suppose he has to become Jekyll to avoid being captured by the police for his actions as Hyde.  Anyway, I can think of all sorts of alternate scenarios, such as Hyde being in jail for his evil deeds and asking his attorney to bring him the potion that will restore Dr. Jekyll.  It’s no wonder this iconic book has spawned TV shows, movies, and other novels that put a different slant on this timeless and intriguing story.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

ORPHAN TRAIN by Christina Baker Kline

I know that most great books have a degree of sadness, but the first half of this novel was so depressing that I just wanted to get it over with.  Molly is a teenager in foster care in Maine.  When she gets caught stealing a worn-out paperback copy of Jane Eyre from the library, she cuts a deal to do her 50 hours of community service cleaning out a ninety-one-year-old woman’s attic.  (As I’m writing this, it sounds a little silly.)  The elderly woman is Vivian, who came to the Midwest as a young Irish girl on a train filled with orphan children from the East.  At first, Vivian is taken in by a family that runs a sweatshop, but when the depression sets in, women start mending their old clothes instead of buying new ones.  After that, she lands in a dirt poor family that can barely feed their own children.  When a school assignment requires that Molly interview an adult about a journey in which they had to leave some possessions behind, she asks Vivian, who shares her early tribulations with Molly, who is experiencing problems of her own at home.  Soon Molly and Vivian forge a friendship, as they find that they have parallel histories, and Molly uses her internet savvy to track down some of Vivian’s family members.  After I got past all the misery in Vivian’s childhood, I began to enjoy this novel, even with all of its coincidences and predictability.  I’m sure the author is not exaggerating the fate that many of the children from the orphan trains suffered.  They became servants and farmhands and functioned basically as white slaves.  This book reminded me of Black Beauty, which I haven’t read since I was a child, but Vivian, like Beauty, moves from one cruel situation to another.  Since she’s now in her nineties and wealthy, we know that she survives and even prospers.  Tragic beginnings can sometimes morph into happy endings, and Vivian’s journey with all of its bumps along the road is one worth following.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

CITY OF THIEVES by David Benioff

Lev Beniov is a teenager in Leningrad during WWII.  When he and his buds pilfer the effects of a dead German paratrooper, Lev is the only one caught by the authorities.  His sentence is actually a quest:  to find a dozen eggs for a wedding cake for the daughter of a Russian colonel.  Kolya, a soldier caught for desertion, is his assigned partner in this quest and has enough worldly experience to be a little more resourceful than Lev.  The problem is that Russians are starving, and everyone has already eaten their chickens, since they don’t have the means to feed them.  Kolya and Lev follow what leads they have, finding the extreme lengths to which people will go to survive.  After a few hair-raising encounters, they come upon a group of young Russian women who are serving the sexual needs of the occupying German officers.   Well-fed, these girls seem to be a possible avenue to the required eggs.  At this point, Kolya and Lev join forces with a group of partisan soldiers who have weapons and skills, one of whom is a young female sniper, Vika, with whom Lev becomes infatuated.  Since Lev is ostensibly the author’s grandfather, we can assume that he survives.  However, this is fiction, and anything can happen.  In this case, what happens is a series of treacherous adventures, culminating in a life-or-death chess match, in which Lev shows his mettle.  While Lev is awkward and naïve, Kolya is flamboyant and eternally optimistic, with Lev providing the practical influence to Kolya the dreamer and schemer—sort of like a superhero and his sidekick.  Not that I would compare this story to a comic book, because anything about WWII is going to be deadly serious, and this book has several horrific moments.  On the whole, though, it’s a captivating adventure novel that takes place in a true life-and-death setting.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

RAYLAN by Elmore Leonard

As a huge fan of the TV series Justified, I knew I had to read this book about Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshall in eastern Kentucky.  My favorite criminal ever is the smooth-talking Boyd Crowder, who doesn’t appear in the book until the second half, and even then he’s not the real villain.  In fact, this novel is really two stories sandwiched together, and in both cases the main bad guy is a gal.  The first half is about Dickie and Coover Crowe who decide to supplement their marijuana earnings by stealing kidneys and then selling them back to the original owner.  If you’ve watched the show, you know that the Crowes are not known for medical expertise, but a transplant nurse named Layla has the necessary skills.  Carol Conlan, a coal mining executive without scruples, dominates the second half, trying to use her womanly wiles on Raylan.  He, however, has his eye on a young poker player named Jackie, who slipped through the fingers of her captors after being arrested during a raid.  Meanwhile, Delroy Lewis, who has recruited three young women to rob banks for him, has a bone to pick with Raylan from a prior rap and goes after him, thinly disguised as a drag queen.  If all of this sounds too familiar, you must be a long-time follower of Justified.  I’ve only been watching for a few years, but my husband recognized the plotlines from some earlier seasons.  I read this book aloud to him during a road trip, and my best voice imitation was that of Dewey Crowe.  He figures into the second half as the possible heir to a prospective large coal site that Carol can’t wait to get her hands on.  A little old lady in a nursing home has other plans for Carol and, believe it or not, owns the best scene in the book.

Monday, July 14, 2014

RUM PUNCH by Elmore Leonard

Jackie Burke is a flight attendant whose crime is bringing in undeclared cash from the Bahamas. The money belongs to Ordell, an arms dealer, who makes a habit of bailing out his accomplices so that he can take them out—with a bullet.  Caught red-handed, Jackie figures she’d better work with law enforcement to avoid the same fate.  Ordell has other accomplices and hopes to recruit his old friend Louis, his former partner in a botched kidnapping, who now works for bail bondsman Max Cherry.  As is customary with an Elmore Leonard novel, the line is blurred between the good guys and the bad guys, and I had high hopes for Jackie to turn out to be one of the good guys, or gals in this case, and for her to still be alive at the end of the novel.  She’s gutsy and savvy, thinks well on her feet, and becomes more than chummy with Max, who’s no dummy, either.  She’s the bridge between the good guys and the baddies, and tries to play both sides against the middle.  As Jackie and the law officers develop a convoluted plan for double-crossing Ordell, Jackie makes plans of her own, drawing Max into her scheme, while he begins contemplating divorce from his estranged wife.  This novel was the inspiration for the movie Jackie Brown, which served as sort of a comeback vehicle for Pam Grier, even though Jackie is blonde in the book.  Quentin Tarantino directed, and Samuel L. Jackson played Ordell.  DeNiro as Louis?  I need to see this movie again.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Ifemelu is a young Nigerian woman who blogs from the United States about her experiences and observations of being a foreign and black.  She struggles mightily when she first comes to this country and finds herself doing the unthinkable in order to survive financially, at great cost to her emotional health.  Meanwhile, the love of her life, Obinze, goes to London on a 6-month visa, works menial jobs, and plans to enter into a sham marriage in order to remain there.  A dispute over the price of his borrowed identity causes him to be summarily deported, but he gets back on his feet in Lagos, Nigeria, and actually thrives there.  After gaining American citizenship, Ifemelu returns to Nigeria and reconnects with Obinze, who now has a wife and child.  I was particularly puzzled as to what lures Ifemelu back to Nigeria, American passport in hand.  Perhaps the chance to see Obinze again provides some motivation, or perhaps she just wants to go home.  She then scoffs at the snobbery of those, like herself, who completed their education abroad but becomes equally disenchanted with her old friends whose only focus is marriage.  Describing this novel as a love story feels a little lazy, because it is that and so much more.   Ifemelu’s blog posts are so blisteringly insightful, that I feel I should have paid a little more attention to her advice for white people discussing racial issues with their black friends.  One of my favorite moments in the book is when she and her fellow Africans in the U.S. rejoice in disbelief over the improbable election of Obama in 2008.   She and her boyfriend Blaine, a Yale professor, their relationship having run its course, find that their support for Obama is just about all they have left in common.  In Nigeria, race is not an issue, but people judge one another’s success by the size of their generator, since the existence of electrical power is hit or miss.  Nigeria may lack an infrastructure, but Ifemelu and Obinze find that the U.S. and the U.K. have their own sets of drawbacks.  Choose your poison, and sometimes home trumps everything else.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

MOONRISE by Cassandra King

Helen and Emmet are newlyweds, and all is well, at least until Helen insists they spend the summer at Moonrise, a stunning mansion in Highlands, NC, that belonged to Emmet’s deceased wife, Rosalyn.  All of Emmet’s so-called friends in Highlands are appalled not only that he remarried less than a year after Rosalyn’s untimely death in a car crash but also that Helen is not one of their own.  In fact, Kit and Tansy, Rosalyn’s two best friends, are convinced that Helen hoodwinked Emmet into marrying her.  Their suspicions couldn’t be farther from the truth, but Kit and Tansy make it their mission to make sure Helen knows that she is a poor stand-in for Rosalyn.  As the story progresses, we become increasingly aware that these two wicked witches may be even more evil than we thought, poisoning Emmet’s daughter’s mind against Helen and driving a stake into the heart of the marriage by planting the seeds of doubt with their inuendos.  Helen and Tansy are two of the narrators, so that we have a first-hand view of Helen’s mounting insecurities and Tansy’s hostility.  The third narrator is Willa, a local woman who serves as a housekeeper and nursemaid to various summer residents.  She is the neutral party here with problems of her own.  The big question is the identity of NK, mentioned in Rosalyn’s datebook, who may hold the answers to Rosalyn’s mysterious death.  I figured that one out but not all the circumstances surrounding the mystery.  This is not great literature, nor will it appeal to a man.  However, if you take this book to the beach with you, take lots of sunscreen and wear a big hat.  Otherwise you may get sunburned while you keep promising yourself just one more chapter before you close the book and pack up your beach chair.  I’m not sure if I was in a hurry to find out what happened to Rosalyn or if I just wanted to banish Kit and Tansy from my imagination as soon as possible.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014


Smilla Jasperson knows snow and ice, thanks to her childhood in Greenland, where her mother was an Inuit hunter.  She now lives in Copenhagen with financial help from her wealthy Danish father.  When a neighbor child, Isaiah, falls from a rooftop and dies, she determines that he was being chased, just by examining his footprints in the snow.  The police, however, are apathetic and uncooperative, and the boy’s mother is an alcoholic.  Her only ally is a mechanic who also befriended the child, and his behavior becomes suspicious as the novel progresses.  When Smilla discovers that the boy’s father died on a clandestine expedition, she begins investigating whether there’s a connection between the father’s death and the son’s.  Along the way, she encounters a cast of unsavory characters who threaten her life, but Smilla is pretty capable when it comes to self-preservation and self-defense.  In this regard she bears some resemblance to that other Scandanavian heroine—Lisbeth of Dragon Tattoo fame.  As is often the case with a translation, I found it difficult to keep the characters straight, and this book is not nearly as fast-paced as Larssen’s trilogy.  Smilla also burdens us with a fair amount of technical stuff about ice formation, ice structure, ice-breaking, etc.  I will say, though, that reading a novel that is partially set in Greenland is a first for me.  As long as the action was taking place on land, I stayed absorbed in the story, but eventually the path to uncovering the truth leads Smilla to a job as a sort of stewardess on a ship.  At this point I thought the book started losing its believability.  The ship’s crew and guests are the most dangerous creeps yet, and their mission is to complete the task that was aborted on the expedition in which Isaiah’s father died, no matter what the cost.  Not until the end does Smilla have an inkling of what lies in store, and her unlikely ally on the ship is a junkie.  I have no complaints about the nebulous ending, but some of the other answers to the whole puzzle left me scratching my head and feeling like it was all a little above my pay grade.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

ANDREW'S BRAIN by E.L. Doctorow

Andrew is a cognitive scientist who seems to attract serious misfortune.  He accidentally killed his first child, and his wife Martha divorced him over this mistake.  His second wife Briony dies, and he feels indirectly responsible for her death as well, although I’m not really sure why.  In fact, there are aspects of this book that I don’t understand.  Before Briony’s unfortunate demise, she gave birth to a daughter, Willa, and Andrew delivers her to Martha, partly as a replacement for the child they lost and partly because he doesn’t trust himself to take care of another infant.  Andrew at times speaks of himself in first person and then wanders into third person, as he tells his story to someone he calls Doc, who tries to keep Andrew on topic.  Like The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the book’s structure is that of one long conversation, with periodic ramblings on Andrew’s part.  Many passages are a bit too cerebral for me, especially as Andrew waxes eloquent about the brain versus the mind and the possibility of technology ever duplicating brain function.  Andrew asks Doc an important question near the end of the book, to which Doc replies in the negative, but I’m unable to determine if there’s some sort of subterfuge on Doc’s part.  I do know that the author skewers George W. Bush, thinly disguised, and his advisers, nicknamed Chaingang and Rumdum, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack.  (Who is Peachums?)  This section is perversely funny, if you can get past the fact that it’s a little disturbing, not to mention way out in left field.  The author drops hints everywhere about Andrew’s true self, including his self-proclaimed lack of remorse or feeling and the President’s nickname for him, but, again, I don’t know how to interpret these clues or even if interpretation is warranted.  Understanding a book is not always a prerequisite for enjoyment, but it helps.

Monday, June 16, 2014


Daniel Lewin, along with his wife and infant son, is on his way to pick up his sister, Susan, who is in a mental institution.  Daniel is not exactly the picture of sanity himself, but he and Susan have reason to be a little unbalanced.  Their parents, Rochelle and Paul Isaacson, were Communist Party members in the 1950s and found themselves on Death Row after a flimsy trial for espionage.  Certainly the Rosenbergs come to mind, and Doctorow’s novel, published in 1971, has fictionalized their story, focusing on the children and the impact of their parents’ execution on their lives.  Daniel retraces the past, mixing first- and third-person narration, including a stint for him and Susan in a children’s shelter, from which they escaped, only to be caught by their parents’ lawyer, Ascher, and returned to the facility.  Eventually they found a home with Robert Lewin, son of Ascher’s partner, and his wife.  From that point on, their lives were as normal as could be, given their notoriety, the grief over the loss of their parents, and their mounting anger at the system that demanded their parents’ execution, despite a lack of evidence and a possibly unreliable witness.  The Isaacsons basically took the fall, refusing to divulge who their friends were and thereby impeding their own defense, much to Ascher’s exasperation.  I can admire their integrity in this attitude, especially since their execution basically took the heat off their revolutionary compatriots.  However, they sacrificed their children to the cause in the process, and since none of their friends came forward to help them, I can’t help feeling that maybe their friends weren’t worthy of the Isaacsons’ supreme loyalty.  The most oily character is Selig Mendish who fingered the Isaacsons for passing American technology secrets to the Russians, earning himself a mere 10-year incarceration.  Doctorow reminds us that American history has its share of ugly eras in which our own citizens suffer needlessly at the hands of the government whose job it is to protect them.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014


Christine is a woman in her forties who wakes up each morning in bed with a strange man wearing a wedding band.  In the bathroom she finds photos of the two of them together and wonders what is going on.  Her reflection is even more terrifying, because she can’t remember her adult life at all.  Christine has an unusual type of amnesia characterized by the fact that sleeping through the night erases all of her memories.  Fortunately, a scientist named Ed Nash has developed an interest in her case.  He calls her every morning after her husband Ben leaves for work and tells her where her journal is hidden.  Ben does not know about Nash or the journal, and one of the first things she reads in the journal is that she should not trust Ben.  Every day her opinion of Ben vacillates between that of a loving husband and that of someone who has his own agenda for keeping her in the dark.  Each day Christine rereads her journal from start to finish and adds that day’s discoveries, building up a reasonable substitute for a short-term memory bank.  She finds that Ben has lied to her about everything from the birth of their child to the cause of her memory loss.  She tries to convince herself that he is just trying to protect her from truths that she cannot handle, because she really has no one else to rely on.   Then she starts having flashes of memories that help her start to assemble some of the pieces of her former life.  This book is sort of a cross between the movies Memento and Groundhog Day, but I don’t mean to imply that Christine’s story is funny.  In fact, it’s quite tense, and with each successive journal entry, I kept my fingers crossed that she would be able to build on that day’s knowledge and make the appropriate decisions the next day.  However, nothing is a given in Christine’s world, and she’s completely cut off from everyone except Nash and Ben, who both seem a little shady.  She finally reconnects with her old friend Claire, and the storyline gathers speed, as the intensity ramps up.  I wasn’t at all surprised by the ending, but the ride was still a thrill.