Wednesday, March 26, 2014


Sookie has just married off the last of her four daughters, and she's exhausted.  Before she even has a moment to recover, she receives the shock of her life:  she's adopted.  Her 88-year-old mother Lenore, overbearing and over the top, has never mentioned this fact and has always pressed Sookie to live up to her Simmons family heritage.  The novel alternates between Sookie's attempts to adjust to her newfound identity and the history of her biological relatives, a Polish family who owned a gas station in Pulaski, Wisconsin.  Their story is more compelling, as four daughters run the family filling station while their father is in a tuberculosis sanatorium and their brother is a WWII pilot.  Three of the girls, including Sookie's biological mother, become WASPs, a group of female pilots who ferry planes to the troops.  The tone of Sookie's story makes it seem a little frivolous;  Sookie is justifiably upset but copes by meeting a psychiatrist at Waffle House so that her nosy neighbors won't find out.  That plan backfires, but it's absurd, any way you look at it.  The WASPs, however, are a spunky bunch, and this novel is a good vehicle for getting their story told to other women, although I felt that Sookie's silliness detracted from the meatiness of the WASPs' history.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

THE AVIATOR'S WIFE by Melanie Benjamin

I know the usual stuff about Charles Lindbergh, including his Nazi-leaning political position, some of which I gleaned from Philip Roth's The Plot Against America.  However, I knew absolutely nothing about his wife Anne until now.  This novel certainly addresses Lindbergh's flaws, but Anne is not the world's best role model, either.  Overshadowed by her siblings, she has major identity issues, even before becoming Lindbergh's puppet.  After her firstborn is notoriously kidnapped and killed, she loses some of her confidence in her heroic husband and devotes herself to her family.  As he becomes increasingly more despicable, though, she follows along, even penning a defense of her husband's warped pro-Hitler opinions, further alienating both of them from horrified friends and family.  The author justifies the Lindberghs' admiration of Germany, because Hitler gagged the press, giving the Lindberghs a welcome respite from the constant hounding that forced them to live abroad for a time.  Honestly, I just didn't like Anne very much.  Her myriad accomplishments as an aviator in her own right are quite stunning, proving that she had some spunk buried inside somewhere.  I kept wishing and waiting for her to rebel against the man who insisted that she stifle her grief over their dead child.  The fact that she refused to be buried next to him on Maui speaks fathoms about her true feelings.  If only she had been a little more independent while he was still alive….  If you like historical fiction with flawed characters, check out Melanie Benjamin's earlier novel, Alice I Have Been.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

THE LOWLAND by Jhumpa Lahiri

The novel opens with 2 young brothers, Udayan and Subhash, sneaking onto the grounds of an English golf course in Calcutta in the 1960s.  The two are inseparable until they head off to separate colleges.  Their lives diverge even further when Subhash departs for Rhode Island to continue his studies, while Udayan remains in India as a political activist.  I found it interesting that Udayan, the younger and more daring of the two, is the one who stays behind, while Subhash, the older and more dutiful brother, is the one who breaks away.  Subhash finds that Americans, caught up in civil rights issues and protests against the war in Vietnam, are not even aware of the unrest in India.  Meanwhile, violence is building in India, and we readers must guess as to what extent Udayan is involved.  He writes to Subhash that he has taken a wife of his own choosing, Gauri, and moved in with his and Subhash's parents, who expected to choose their sons' wives for them.  Unforeseen events cause Subhash's and Gauri's lives to become entangled, and the resulting triangle is not what you might think, as both are fiercely loyal to Udayan.  This novel beautifully tackles a variety of family issues, but especially guilt, and how that guilt plays out in family relationships.  Toward the end of the book, we find that guilt haunts Gauri in particular, whose actions in India seem to have had a domino effect, in that she commits another transgression that brings on even more guilt.  She and her daughter Bela both choose to lead unencumbered lives, in a way, but Gauri's choices are more difficult to understand. Despite this being largely a book about two brothers, she is the enigmatic character here and the one whose persona I really wanted to explore.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

THE BURGESS BOYS by Elizabeth Strout

The Burgess boys and their sister Susan, collectively known as the Burgess Kids, grew up in Shirley Falls, Maine, but the boys are now lawyers in the Big Apple.  Jim is rich, thanks to his wife Helen, and famous, thanks to a high-profile murder trial.  Bob is more the teddy bear type, not ambitious, and trying to make his way emotionally since his divorce.  The story revolves around Susan's maladjusted 10-year-old son Zach, who has thrown a pig's head into a Somali mosque during Ramadan.  Needless to say, he's in need of his uncles' legal assistance and some serious psychotherapy, but he is not the central character here, and we don't quite no what to make of him anyway.  Susan is a single mother, about as likeable and sensitive as an armadillo, and she, Jim, and Bob also grew up in a matriarchal household after their father died in a tragic accident.  In fact, the "accident," as the three siblings nebulously refer to it, is really more pivotal to this story than Zach's foolish crime.  The "accident" has gone largely unaddressed by these three until now, although it has haunted Bob's psyche his entire life, and probably that of the other two as well.  Family revelations start to emerge, leaving us with new takes on these characters, though not in such a drastic manner as in The Dinner. These discoveries allow the characters to reinvent themselves as they reevaluate what's important and what mistakes they can still rectify.  I liked this novel so much more than Strout's blockbuster, Olive Kitteridge, because this book is more cohesive and follows a nice, sequential path, with an explosive beginning and a tidy wrap-up.