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.