Wednesday, February 26, 2014


This is one of the few books where I think the author was justified in telling the story non-sequentially.  The plot bounces back and forth between present-day California and the Ligurian Coast of Italy in 1962.  In the earlier time slice, Pasquale owns a small hotel in a village called Porto Vergogna (port of shame)—not to be confused with Portovenere in the famed Cinque Terre.  Suddenly one day a beautiful young actress, Dee Moray, arrives, stealing Pasquale's heart.  Dee has a small part in the movie Cleopatra, and Pasquale feels that she is out of his league, romantically speaking, so that their connection is more wistful than passionate.  Plus, Pasquale has obligations of his own to fulfill.  Fast forward to the present, and a young woman named Claire is struggling with career decisions and love-life decisions, when a young man named Shane comes into the studio where she works to pitch a movie idea.  He has to take a backseat, though, to Pasquale, now an old man, who has come to try to reconnect with Dee Moray.  If this all sounds a little too saccharine, then consider the two other characters who inadvertently orchestrate the plot.  Michael Deane is a self-absorbed Hollywood bigshot who serves as the publicity chief for Cleopatra and ousts Dee from the movie with a cruel lie of epic proportions.  Richard Burton, larger than life, is the cad we expect him to be, stealing Dee's heart, even as he woos Elizabeth Taylor away from Eddie Fisher.  Burton's role in this novel is little more than a cameo, but his impact on the lives of the other characters is immeasurable.  I loved the idea of this novel more than the novel itself.  It was just a little too dreamy for my tastes, with characters that I didn't bond with closely enough, and a plot that didn't grab my attention quite tightly enough.  The calmness that pervades this book makes it a good one to relax with.  Even the book's moments of strife, such as when Dee's son has to live penniless on the streets of Edinburgh, never seem too scary, as I just assumed everything would turn out OK in the end.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


The most surprising thing about this book is that Paton wrote it in 1946.  The language is a little odd but somehow intoned the voice of an African speaker.  The two main characters are a black clergyman and a white landowner, James Jarvis, both of whom live in a small fictional village in South Africa.  The black man, Stephen Kumalo, gets word that his sister in Johannesburg is ill.  He travels there and finds that she is not physically sick but has fallen into an unhealthy lifestyle, especially for her young son.  Kumalo then begins a circuitous search for his own son, Absalom, and comes to suspect that Absalom has killed Jarvis's son Arthur, who interrupted a home invasion.  Arthur's activism for the abolition of apartheid makes his murder by a black man all the more poignant, as the "natives" have now lost an advocate and a friend. The two fathers are to some degree a microcosm of the country itself, peeling back the layers of the urban dysfunction, as their respective sons' activities come to light.  The recurring theme in this book is fear, and certainly ignorance begets fear.  The author makes a strong case for education as one of the many bricks needed to build equality and unity among the diverse populations.  One of my favorite passages is from a book that Arthur Jarvis was writing before his death:  "It was permissible to use unskilled men for unskilled work.  But it is not permissible to keep men unskilled for the sake of unskilled work."  Arthur had great admiration for Abraham Lincoln, and in another passage, he observes, "We believe in help for the underdog, but we want him to stay under."  What's ironic about South Africa, vs. the U.S. for example, is that the whites exploited a population that vastly outnumbered them.  Somehow the fear factor is much more apparent when I consider this situation in which the whites had every reason to be nervous.  How can the few subjugate the many without repercussions?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014


Kimberly Chang was the smartest student in her class in Hong Kong, but in Brooklyn, her language difficulties are a limiting factor.  Then after school she works with her mother in a sweatshop owned by her mother's haughty sister, Paula.  Aunt Paula also sets Kimberly and her mother up in an apartment, but it's a ramshackle, roach-infested dump with no heat.  The upside of working in the factory is that Kimberly meets Matt, who is also helping his mother meet production quotas.  Eventually, Kimberly proves herself a scholar in math and science and earns an opportunity to attend Harrison, an expensive prep school.  She juggles school and work and keeping all of her classmates, including her best friend Annette, in the dark about how destitute she and her mother are.  Achieving so much with so few resources is quite a feat, but her life as a normal teenager suffers, even though her aloofness is actually a turn-on for some of the boys at school.  We know from the start that either her future as a surgeon or her relationship with Matt is doomed, because he will never allow her to be the breadwinner.  I happily and quickly traipsed through this book, despite the fact that I found the storyline to be a bit tired and predictable:  A smart immigrant girl claws her way up from abject poverty and has to choose between a bright future and love for a boy from her old world.  Also, the characters are a bit one-dimensional—Kimberly is wonderful, although she does trip up occasionally, Annette is her ever-supportive sidekick, and Aunt Paula is basically a wicked witch.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014


Here's a young adult novel about 3 teenagers with cancer, two of whom fall in love.  This premise may sound particularly unappealing, but think again.  Yes, it's a little weepy, but there's way more to it than that.  Our narrator is 16-year-old Hazel, who has terminal thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs, forcing her to tote an oxygen cart around with her everywhere.  Augustus is her 17-year-old love interest, who has a type of cancer that most people survive, but he has already lost a leg to it.  Finally, there's Isaac, who brings the other two together at a support group meeting.  The author handles all this with such a deft hand and with such witty and intelligent dialog that I didn't even mind very much when he rather predictably turned the tables on us.  He never lets us forget that these characters have cancer, while at the same time making us love them for who they are—typical teenagers in many ways but wise beyond their years because they have to look at the world from a perspective that most of us don't have to experience.  The back story is Hazel's favorite book, a novel called An Imperial Affliction, also about a young person with cancer, that ends in the middle of a sentence.  She and Augustus manage to gain an audience with the author in Amsterdam in the hope that he will enlighten them as to what eventually happens to the characters in the book.  The big question, though, is this:  What's the point of loving someone who is about to die?  Given that death is inevitable and often unpredictable, we have to cherish every moment with those we love, and the author makes this point quite eloquently, without heavy-handedness.  He imbues his characters with a gentle thoughtfulness that draws our admiration and our compassion.