Wednesday, January 29, 2014

NIGHT FILM by Marisha Pessl

I was so excited to begin reading this book, and that enthusiasm lasted about halfway through.  Then the book began to drag—on and on and on.  Also, this madcap mystery bears a striking resemblance to The Cuckoo's Calling, with about the same degree of absurdity.  Here the narrator is a journalist, Scott McGrath, who attracts a couple of hangers-on:  Nora—a coatcheck girl who was the last person to see Ashley alive—and Hopper, whom Scott encounters at the scene of Ashley's suicide.  Ashley was a former piano prodigy and the daughter of Stanislas Cordova, a film-noir director, whom Scott famously accused of criminal behavior years ago.  Scott wants to vindicate himself and recover his reputation by finding Cordova somehow responsible for Ashley's death.  Hopper has his own reasons for joining this quest, and I never figured out what Nora's motives were.  Scott has a diabolical sort of Alice in Wonderland adventure that may have actually happened and may have involved a significant amount of black magic, or may have been a wild hallucination.  One symbol that runs throughout the novel is that of "a tapeworm that's eaten its own tail."  Scott's pursuit of the truth here certainly falls into the category of a trail that seems to circle back on itself.  He meets lots of wacky characters (as did the afore-mentioned Alice) who lead him on the proverbial wild goose chase and then vanish into thin air.  The writing is impeccable ("It was a clear winter day with all the bounce and bright-eyed resilience of a teenager…, the two-day-old snow crunching like cake icing under our boots."); it's just not enough.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


I was reluctant to read this book, but several people told me they loved it, so I borrowed a copy and dove in.  I found the storytelling to be decent, but the other facets of the book dragged it down so much that I have to disagree with all those proponents.  The dialog is stilted, and the character development is non-existent.  Catherine is an overworked attorney whose friend Liam, a private investigator, introduces her to Ben, a Polish Holocaust survivor.  Ben is convinced that a prominent Chicago philanthropist is a former Nazi who absconded with his family's treasures, including a sizeable amount of cash.  (I didn't understand why this Jewish family didn't keep a large chunk of their cash for escape purposes; if they were giving their valuables to someone for safekeeping, then surely they suspected that they might have to flee.)  Catherine becomes somewhat of a broken record as she incessantly laments the billable hours that she sacrifices in order to hear Ben's story.  (The lady doth protest too much.)  Eventually, of course, she buys into his story so completely that she's willing to risk everything in order to help him obtain retribution.  I, on the other hand, just did not warm up to him and never felt as moved by Ben's story as Catherine was.  In fact, Ben got on my nerves with his refusal to cut to the chase.  Plus, some of the things he did to help rescue his family back in the 1940s, such as impersonating a Nazi officer, seemed a bit far-fetched.  That episode is not really any more preposterous, though, than the fact that an attorney would spend hours of office time listening to an old man's story. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


Here's another novel about Southerners behaving badly.  Yes, I know, this is about a rural community, and obviously this kind of thing really happens, but the Pentecostals are even starting to give up speaking in tongues.  This book is set 30 years ago, I think, but still….  We have 3 first-person narrators (very Faulkneresque):  Jess (a 9-year-old boy that, once again, I initially thought was a girl), Adelaide (an elderly woman), and Clem (the sheriff).  Just the fact that the sheriff is one of the narrators does not portend well for this community.  The villain is Carson Chambliss, pastor of a small church where snake-handling is the norm.  One elderly woman has already died due to this practice, but the so-called Christian parishioners dumped her body in her backyard so that there would be no suspicions surrounding the church.  Adelaide now keeps all the children at her house during the services to protect them from the caged rattlers.  Jess peeks in a church window one Sunday and observes church members trying to cure his older brother Stump of muteness by laying on hands, which is not as gentle a process as one might think.  All in all, Chambliss is one of the scariest religious fanatics ever, and he's having an affair with Jess's mother.  There must be some charisma there, but that didn't come across to me.  In fact, I like for my characters to be a little more nuanced, but he is bad to the bone.  When Jess inadvertently causes the zealots to believe that a miracle has occurred, the consequences are dire.  Jess's paternal grandfather, whom the sheriff blames for his son's death, reenters the picture as a somewhat reformed man.  This book did not teach me anything, nor did it move me or entertain me all that much, but it inspired a pretty lively book club discussion.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

THE DINNER by Herman Koch

If you need to like the characters in order to like the book, this is not the novel for you.  The setting is a pretentious, absurdly overpriced restaurant in Amsterdam and begins innocently enough.  Paul, his brother Serge, and their wives are meeting for dinner to talk about their children.  Paul is the narrator and has nothing but snide contempt for his brother, running for Prime Minister of the Netherlands.  Serge thrives on being in the limelight, and Paul, a history teacher on medical leave, is obviously quite envious of Serge's success.  We soon learn that these four people are all despicable, and some of them are probably sociopaths.  Worse yet are Paul and Claire's son Michel and Serge and Babette's son Rick, who have together committed an atrocity without suffering any consequences whatsoever.  What the teenage boys do is bad enough, but their parents' responses are the most appalling aspect of the novel.  This is not merely about damage control, and these boys have more than just a case of affluenza.  I'm not sure if the author is making a statement about our society and goes way overboard, or if he is having a little sadistic fun, making us squirm over parental attitudes that are beyond disturbing.  In fact, Claire and Paul share such an atrocious rationalization of their son's actions that we shudder at how two such people would find each other, with neither able to offer a moral compass for their son.  I like for characters to be striped with a little good and a little bad, and characters this one-dimensional seem too unreal.  However, three of the four parents are so jaw-droppingly vile, that morbid curiosity got the better of me.  Can you imagine protecting a child's "future" when that future probably holds increasingly more violent acts?  I would read a sequel.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

CITY OF WOMEN by David R. Gillham

Some reviewers have called this book a thriller, and I'll go along with that, but this is no beach read.  Sigrid is living with her despicable mother-in-law in Berlin during WWII while her husband Kaspar is serving in the Germany army.  To add some sparkle to her life, Sigrid has indulged in an affair with a married Jew named Egon, who has now gone into hiding.  As if this relationship weren't risky enough, she befriends Ericha, a neighbor's nanny, who is helping to hide Jews and smuggle them out of the country.  From here, things start to get very dicey and complicated, with men who may or may not be Gestapo and a family in hiding who may or may not be Egon's wife and children.  Having already served as Egon's courier on several occasions, Sigrid soon becomes involves in Ericha's work as well and finds that she has untapped strengths and talents, as she comes to realize that the horrors she hears about from the BBC are not propaganda.  She becomes increasingly reckless with her own life, given that it's fairly torturous anyway, between her clerical job in the patent office and the RAF air raids almost every night.  She's a bit of a chameleon, nervy at times, occasionally reluctant, sleeping with the enemy, and relying on her intuition to help her make savvy choices and elude trouble.  Simultaneously her greatest asset and her greatest weakness, though, is her passion, propelling her into questionable sexual liaisons on the one hand and into the dangerous world of saving lives on the other.