Wednesday, December 30, 2015

MOBY DICK by Herman Melville

Inspired by the movie In the Heart of the Sea, I decided to read this classic that was not required reading at my high school.  I thought this novel would be more about a marathon battle between man and nature, like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, but a lot longer.  However, I kept reading and reading and waiting for the big white whale to show up, but Melville kept me in suspense for 400+ pages.  The bulk of the book is actually a history lesson, describing whales and whaling to the nth degree.  Not that that’s a bad thing.  I actually found the anatomy of the sperm whale and its comparison of size, weight, and characteristics to a right whale to be fairly interesting.  Then we have the specifics on how a whale is harpooned from smaller boats and lashed to the side of the ship, where sharks swarm to get a piece of the action.  The biggest butchering task is the decapitation of the sperm whale, since the head contains the valuable spermaceti oil.   I also learned that a storm can disrupt the behavior of a compass needle.  There’s not a lot of action or character development, if you ask me, but the central character is Captain Ahab, who demands that his crew vow to hunt and destroy Moby Dick, the big white sperm whale who is responsible for Ahab having lost a leg.  Ahab’s singular mission is a mad obsession, as his thirst for revenge clouds his judgment, putting the welfare of his ship and crew at risk.  The occasional encounter with another ship breaks up the monotony of several years at sea, for both the crew and the reader.  When the captain of another ship comes requesting lamp oil, Stubb, the 2nd mate, mistakes the captain’s lamp-feeder for a coffee pot.  Stubb tells the 1st mate, Starbuck (what a familiar name!), that the visiting captain must be OK if he’s come to make coffee.  Who knew that the guys who started the ubiquitous purveyors of coffee were Moby Dick readers?

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

THE YELLOW BIRDS by Kevin Powers

Private Bartle, age 21, and Private Murphy, age 18, are U.S. soldiers in Iraq in 2004.  Murphy is sort of a fragile runt, with Bartle as his assigned protector, and Bartle has foolishly promised Murphy’s mother that he will see that her son returns home safely.  We know early on that Bartle, the narrator, will have to renege on that promise.  We also know that Bartle suffers tremendous guilt regarding Murphy’s fate after he returns to the U.S.  The author keeps us in suspense until the end of the novel when he finally discloses the circumstances of Murphy’s death.  The chapters leading up to this finale alternate between the seemingly ineffective gunfire exchanges in Iraq and Bartle’s inability to cope with life after his return to the States, spent in a drunken stupor.  For both Bartle and Murphy, the war is a baffling exercise in futility, but Murphy in particular starts becoming unglued, having witnessed his sergeant murdering civilians and having watched a fellow soldier die in combat.  As the sergeant puts it, “You’ve got to stay deviant,” and Murphy is much too sensitive to survive emotionally or physically in such a gruesome environment.  To me, this is not so much a buddy novel as it is a story of an innocent young man and his slightly-more-mature reluctant bodyguard.  Both Murphy and Bartle make bad decisions with devastating consequences, but we can chalk Murphy’s mistakes up to his delicate nature.  However, Bartle, as our narrator, is the more sympathetic character, and we willingly forgive his transgressions, given the traumatic circumstances.  I’m not in a position to judge how authentic Bartle’s voice is, but it seemed pretty real to me—maybe a little too real.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

THE HUSBAND'S SECRET by Liane Moriarty

In Australia, Easter is in the fall.  It also seems to be a time of upheaval for three women there.  Cecelia discovers in the attic an envelope addressed to her that she is to open after her husband’s death.  He is very much alive and out of town, and Cecelia’s fingers are twitching to break the seal.  Tess finds that her husband Will and cousin Felicity are in love with each other.  In fact, Tess and Felicity are so close that Will and Felicity suggest that Felicity just move in with Will and Tess and their son Liam.  Duly appalled by this notion, Tess, with Liam in tow, takes off for her mom’s house, where she reignites a passion for an old flame, Connor Whitby.  Finally, we have Rachel, whose son and daughter-in-law plan to move to NYC, taking Rachel’s beloved grandson Jacob with them.  Rachel’s daughter Janie was murdered when Janie was a teenager, and Jacob is just about the only bright spot in Rachel’s lonely life.  Obviously, these three women’s lives are going to collide sooner or later.  This novel is very readable with lots of tension, although I have to say that I guessed the contents of the mysterious letter.  To me, the most obvious theme in the novel is that of instant karma, or “what goes around comes around.”  Vengeance also plays a role, but, as is the case in real life, it sometimes causes collateral damage.  Even so, none of the evildoers escape scot-free; they suffer unexpected consequences.  The subject matter here is quite serious—betrayal, grief, guilt.  However, some of the characters’ issues, such as Tess’s “social anxiety,” seem superfluous to the story.  I have mixed feelings about the epilogue, which has some staggering revelations and what-if scenarios.  I felt that the author had tied up all the loose ends pretty neatly, but the epilogue just emphasizes how our lives hinge on chance events that can result in relentless suffering or exceedingly good fortune.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

BEASTS OF NO NATION by Uzodinma Iweala

Agu is a young boy in a war-torn African country, who becomes a soldier to stay alive.  His narration in his version of English struck me as sounding very authentic, but it is a little unusual.  He endures some horrific abuses and is more than just an observer in numerous atrocities against innocent civilians, but his biggest problem is his conscience.  He tries to rationalize to himself that God will forgive him for all the people he has killed because he is performing his duties as a soldier.  The only way that he can assuage his guilt and suffering is to focus on the past—his previously carefree childhood—and on his hopes for a future as a doctor or engineer.  These thoughts, especially his dreams for the future, contrast sharply with the agony that is his current life, serving as the companion and bodyguard to the Commandant of his unit, while sacrificing his innocence to the Commandant’s whims.  I can’t imagine the impact of these types of experiences on the psyche of an adult, much less a young boy.  His deep emotional scars could spur him to great achievements, or they could be so debilitating as to inhibit his ability to have a normal life—whatever that is.  First, though, he has to survive, and, if nothing else, the kid has the will to live and is prepared to make the necessary compromises. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

BIG STONE GAP by Adriana Trigiani

In a small Virginia mining town in 1978 lives a 35-year-old pharmacist named Ave Maria Mulligan.  Ave is still grieving the loss of her Italian mother, when her lawyer gives her a letter from her mother, recounting past events that she had never shared with Ave.  This shocking new information throws Ave for a loop, while at the same time explaining her chilly relationship with her father.  Though single, Ave has two significant men in her life.  One is Theodore, a teacher who Ave describes as her best friend.  The other is Jack, a miner who proposes marriage to Ave, with unfortunate results.  Ave Maria is a big-hearted leading lady whose only problem seems to be a lack of sense when it comes to matters of the heart.  Ave lives vicariously through fortyish Iva Lou, the bawdy and vivacious bookmobile driver, who seems to have enthusiastically bedded most of the single men in town.  This novel doesn’t have a lot of tension or tragedy, and the humor is pretty homespun, but it has its charms.  The cast of characters is diverse, with no real villains, with the possible exception of Ave’s greedy aunt.  Even Elizabeth Taylor, who comes to town with husband John Warner during a campaign tour, behaves like the regal star that she was, tolerating with good humor the small town’s lack of sophistication while admiring its generous spirit.   This is not the kind of book that grabbed me and didn’t let go, nor do I think I will remember the plot details for very long.  However, reading it was a pleasant enough way to pass the time.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

INHERENT VICE by Thomas Pynchon

I hope this book is not your typical Thomas Pynchon novel, because, frankly, I do not feel that I have consumed a great piece of literature.  It is sort of a cross between an Elmore Leonard novel and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road but lacking the virtues of either.  It’s 1970, and Los Angeles (or thereabouts) private eye Doc Sportello never turns down an opportunity to smoke some weed or drop some acid.  How he manages to make a living in this line of work in his state of consciousness is somewhat of a mystery, but he is amazingly resourceful and does manage to keep his wits about him somehow, most of the time.  The storyline, though, is so convoluted that I couldn’t quite follow it, much less describe it here.   Basically, Doc’s former girlfriend Shasta Fay has taken up with married real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann and has come to Doc for help in keeping Mickey from being committed to a mental institution.   Then both Mickey and Shasta Fay disappear, possibly kidnapped by a sinister syndicate called the Golden Fang.  As a counterpoint to their disappearance, a musician/informant who supposedly overdosed seems to have resurfaced but fears for his life and the well-being of his family.  Meanwhile, Doc’s longtime nemesis, LAPD’s own “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, has pegged Doc as a possible murderer, so that wherever Doc goes, Bigfoot is lurking somewhere nearby.  This kind of craziness is not really my thing, and sometimes it’s hard to distinguish reality from Doc’s hallucinations.  The names of the characters (Vincent Indelicato, for example) alone are enough to dilute the seriousness, if any, of the subject matter.   So if you’re in the mood for a detective story with a bit of silliness and a 60s/70s vibe, this just might be the ticket.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

CROOKED HEART by Lissa Evans

They say that desperate times call for desperate measures, and that adage certainly applies to Vee and her new ward, Noel, a 10-year-old evacuee from the London blitz during WWII.  Noel is an orphan who has shuttled from his godmother Mattie’s home after her death to the home of a couple who are distantly related to Noel and are relieved when they have to pack him off to St. Albans during the bombing.  Vee takes him in, not out of the goodness of her heart, but because the government will pay her a small stipend.  In her defense, Vee’s life has not been exactly a picnic, either.  She has a grown overweight son Donald who lives with her and uses his heart murmur as an excuse not to earn a living.  His cardiac issue, however, keeps him out of the military, and he soon finds that he can use his defect for illegal personal gain.  Ingrate that he is, he does not share the fact of his scam or his profits with Vee.  Vee, too, figures out that she can make a quick buck going door-to-door asking for charitable donations that she will pocket for herself.  Noel becomes her willing accomplice, finally having something to look forward to, making smart choices about which neighborhood to canvass and which charity to impersonate.  In some ways, this story is sort of a twist on Oliver Twist, but what I loved about it is the burgeoning relationship between Vee and Noel, two skeptical misfits, who become partners in petty crime.  They both have a moral compass of sorts, especially Noel, who becomes outraged when a senile woman’s jewelry is stolen, but he fails to see any hypocrisy in the fact that he and Vee have been milking that same woman for gigantic contributions to their fake causes.  Vee and Noel may have “crooked hearts,” but they’re both lovable and funny, not to mention good for each other, during an extremely difficult time.  This novel never wallows in tragedy or sentimentality, but I found it touching in just the right way.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

FAMILY LIFE by Akhil Sharma

What happens to a family when the brilliant older son suffers acute brain damage in a swimming pool accident?  Now imagine that the family are recent immigrants to Queens from India.  They straddle their Indian and American cultures as best they can, negotiating the American healthcare and legal systems, while praying that Indian rituals will somehow restore their son Birju to normalcy.  The younger son Ajay tells this story with occasional bouts of humor but always with an overall cloud of survivor’s guilt.  To compensate for the tragic turn that his family life has taken, he tells whoppers at school and uses the pickup line “I love you” with the girls he thinks would make good girlfriends.  Meanwhile, his father sinks deeper and deeper into alcoholism, which could cost him his job and therefore the medical benefits that Birju requires.  I would not say that Ajay’s parents are neglectful of him, but certainly they’re not aware of the toll that Birju’s condition is taking on him.  Ajay’s coping mechanisms are alternately funny and poignant, but his parents quarrel constantly and they often vent their anger at Ajay, rendering his childhood almost unbearable.  The fact that this novel is basically autobiographical makes it that much more gut-wrenching but also more revealing in some ways.  In one section, Ajay decides that he could become rich as a writer, without having to study law or science.  He then researches Hemingway’s style without actually reading anything Hemingway wrote.  Then he takes a stab at putting Hemingway’s techniques to use in his own short story, and I thought the result was pretty amazing.  Reading this book, however, is a whole lot easier than reading Hemingway.  

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

TELEGRAPH AVENUE by Michael Chabon

Nat and Archy are co-owners of Brokeland Records, which sells vintage vinyl, in Oakland, CA.  Their wives, Aviva and Gwen, are also business partners—in a midwives practice.  Both families, then, have their livelihoods tied to rather retro ventures, and both of those ventures are in danger of disintegrating.  A former NFL player-turned-mogul plans to build a mega music store near Brokeland that will surely put Nat and Archy out of business.  Nat pulls together a ragtag protest group, while Archy considers a job offer at the new store.  Meanwhile, Aviva and Gwen nearly botch a birth with complications, and Gwen’s rant of indignation may cause the hospital to suspend their privileges.  Gwen herself has a baby due in just a few weeks and discovers that Archy has been unfaithful.  A teenager named Titus also puts in an appearance, looking to reunite with Archy, his biological father, even though the two have never met before.  To complete the generational mayhem, Archy’s drug-addicted father, a former blaxploitation actor, is back in town, trying to raise money for a comeback via blackmail while he lives with his sexy  former costar in a garage.  The plot is just as madcap as it sounds, with a healthy influx of vintage music and movie references and a colorful cast of vividly-drawn characters, including Nat’s son who happens to be in love with Titus and can’t let go of his 8-track player, a funeral director, a lesbian band, an undertaker, and a few goons.  Ultimately, though, this book is about people having to let go of the past and forge a path into the future, even though they may encounter a few thorns along the way.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

THE FINAL SOLUTION by Michael Chabon

I have never read a single Sherlock Holmes novel, but Michael Chabon apparently has.  This novella is an homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous gumshoe.  Holmes is known here simply as a nameless old man who once solved sticky crimes and can still recognize the merest trifles as clues to the case he’s investigating.  We have a murder and a missing parrot who spouts forth number sequences in German.  In fact, the murder probably stems from a dispute over the parrot, who may harbor some sinister secret, to which the numbers are a key, such as the combination to a safe or a Swiss bank account number.  The parrot has a completely different value to a mute boy, as both a beloved pet and as the boy’s lost voice—sort of.   The plot is really pretty simple, but Chabon’s language is anything but.  The writing is so beautiful that it somehow camouflages what is really happening—so much so that I found myself frequently having to reread critical passages. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

WORLD'S FAIR by E.L. Doctorow

This book doesn’t have much of a plot, but then neither did the movie Boyhood.  In this case, the primary narrator is Edgar, a 9-year-old boy growing up in the 30s in New York City.  In fact, this novel is sort of a love letter to New York, guiding us through the streets of the city and eventually through the 1939 World’s Fair, seen through the eyes of 9-year-old Edgar.  His mother Rose and his much older brother Donald narrate a few chapters, but the book primarily belongs to Edgar.  There are funny moments interspersed with sad moments, frightening moments, and historical events, such as the Hindenburg disaster and Hitler’s ascension, alongside the occasional family upheaval.  The writing is very fluid and, fortunately, more sophisticated than what we might expect of a young boy.  Near the end, he enters an essay contest whose topic is the Typical American Boy, and that essay neatly sums up who Edgar is and portrays his writing style, which really is not all that different from the language used throughout the book.  The peripheral characters are more colorful, actually than the main family, especially Norma, the attractive mother of Edgar’s pal Mae, and Edgar’s father’s sisters.  Since Edgar’s father does not narrate any chapters, we see him through Edgar’s and Rose’s eyes, and the portrait we see of him is a little blurry.  He’s something of a flirt and probably a gambler, but just as Edgar never witnesses these faults firsthand, neither do we.  The author provides a nice little bio of Donald so that we know how his life turns out, but there are no corresponding details regarding Edgar’s future.  Even so, what we see of Edgar’s life is much more than a glimpse.  He describes his surroundings and his emotions so vividly that we experience his resistance to surgical anesthesia, his anguish when he has to give up his dog, and his joy in attending a Giants football game with his father and brother.  While momentous events are occurring in other parts of the world, this family experiences their own momentous events, and those are the ones that shape who they are.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

LOON LAKE by E.L. Doctorow

This is not the easiest book to follow, with its multiple narrators and changing person, sometimes from first to third in the same paragraph and referencing the same character.  Joe is the vagabond protagonist, riding the rails and working for a traveling carnival in the 1930s.  Then he happens upon the lavish compound of super-rich tycoon F. W. Bennett, where Joe survives a vicious dog attack and makes himself comfortable while he recovers, ingratiating himself with the master of the estate and two other hangers-on—one who is a gangster’s moll and the other a poet.  This experience changes Joe in a radical way, in that he catches a glimpse of a lifestyle that is as seductive as it is elusive.  His next stop, with the beautiful Clara in tow, is an Indiana town with a factory owned by the above-mentioned Mr. Bennett.  Joe and Clara’s neighbor is involved in an effort to unionize the workers there, and Joe’s association with him makes Joe’s life a little more dangerous.  Reviewers have compared this novel to Theordore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, and I get that, but I kept thinking of The Great Gatsby, with the ostentatious display of wealth and the theme of longing for something or someone just out of reach.  The writing style of this book, though, is a chore to navigate with endless run-on sentences and a sort of stream-of-consciousness feel.  In many ways this is a picaresque adventure novel, but I think its confusing form limits its appeal.  I enjoyed the characters and the storyline, and especially the wrap-up at the end, and I would have loved the prose if the sentence structure had been a little more conventional.  Sticking to conventions, though, does not allow a writer to distinguish himself, I guess, but here I felt that the storyline sometimes was buried and hard to unearth from the chaos of the writing.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015


The heart-stopping scene at the beginning of this book is a hard act to follow.  A wacko wielding a gun holds up a convenience store while Shandi and her young son Natty are inside.  Another hostage is William, a hunky guy who is still mourning the absence of his wife and daughter following a fatal car crash.  William has basically lost the will to live, and Shandi misinterprets his uttering of the word “destiny” to mean that she and he should be together.  The rest of the book does not quite measure up to this auspicious start.  Shandi has another male friend, Walcott, who has stood by her since childhood and even rescued her the night her son was conceived at a frat party.  By the same token, William’s best friend is a woman—Paula, a no-nonsense attorney.  Walcott and Paula are the foils to Shandi’s hot pursuit of William and William’s depressed state of mind.  What I think Shandi and William really need are some friends of their own gender.  William may be high functioning, but he has some degree of autism.  Paula, for one, does not think Shandi is up to the task of coping with William’s disorder or with his grief.  Walcott is not too crazy about Shandi’s designs on William, either, leading us to believe that both he and Paula want to advance beyond that “just friends” relationship.  In any case, William works in a genetics lab, and Shandi enlists his help in finding out who her son’s father is, starting with his genetic blueprint, because Shandi doesn’t remember a thing about that night.  The discovery of the father’s identity is a bit of a stretch, but the real kicker is when he recounts what actually happened.  The tragedy in William’s life is just as murky, as the author tantalizes us with hints about the auto accident without giving us full disclosure until late in the book.  One big surprise lurks in the pages, and I did not see it coming.  Was it worth the wait?  Not really, but I don’t mean to complain.  I still thought the revelations about William’s and Shandi’s pasts were well-timed and well-camouflaged. 

Sunday, October 18, 2015


When a novel centers around the drowning of a 12-year-old girl, I expect the tone of the novel to be pretty serious.  However, the writing has more of a folksy, lighthearted tone that somehow doesn’t feel right.  And it’s not because it’s Southern, because there are plenty of serious Southern writers.  Not that I have a problem with injecting a little humor into a story whose focus is a tragedy, but I just don’t think it works here.  Laurel is a suburban mom near Pensacola whose loving husband David communes with his computer all day for his job as a software developer.  Their daughter Shelby was a good friend of Molly’s and may know more than she’s saying about Molly’s death.  After the police grill Shelby, Laurel takes matters into her own hands—not by quizzing Shelby but by bringing in her volatile sister Thalia to help investigate the neighbors.  Standing by but watching all the goings-on is Bet Clemmons, who is staying with Laurel and her family for a few weeks, as a respite from her impoverished life with a meth-addicted mother.  Thalia’s presence and Molly’s death motivate Laurel to reevaluate the death of her uncle Marty, whose ghost she sees from time to time.  In fact, Molly’s ghost is the intruder who alerts Laurel to the fact that her body is face down in the pool.  When Laurel has a drunken meltdown and smashes everything in sight, I wasn’t sure if this temper tantrum was out of character or just a long overdue eruption.  Laurel is a quilt artist, perfectly content with her quiet life, but Thalia starts planting seeds of doubt in Laurel’s mind about David’s fidelity, mostly because she feels that Laurel would be happier with a more eventful life.  Thalia is an actress, happily married to a gay man, so that both she and her husband can enjoy guilt-free extramarital flings.  I would definitely choose Laurel’s quaint family life over Thalia’s eccentric one, but each to his own.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

NORA WEBSTER by Colm Toibin

Given the subject matter, one would expect this novel to be poignant and heart-wrenching.  However, it is anything but.  Nora is a 40-something woman in Ireland in the late 1960s.  She has four children and has just lost her husband.  The novel opens with her fuming about the endless stream of well-wishing visitors who appear at her door unannounced to commiserate.  Nora remains an obscure and distant personality throughout the novel, but we gain minute glimpses from time to time of what sort of woman she is.  Her relationship with her children is almost as arms-length as the reader’s relationship to the character.  A wealthy family offers her a job in the office where she excelled before she married Maurice, and, with no means of support except a meagre widow’s pension, she has no option except to accept, leaving her young boys to fend for themselves after school.  Her older son has developed a stammer since his father’s death, but especially after spending two months with Nora’s aunt while Nora attended to her ailing husband.  Nora also has two daughters, both away at school, so that their assistance is sporadic.  Nora’s practical nature emerges with every new decision, until the workers at her place of employment decide to form a labor union.  Risking her reputation and relationship with her employer, she dives in.  To me, this episode coincides with Nora’s realization that she no longer has to consider her husband’s opinion or ask for his permission.  That is not to say that her husband was oppressive; in fact, his good standing in the community is a blessing in many ways, gaining her neighbors’ sympathy and support as Nora threads her way through a life without him.  Prior to the unionization effort, Nora has sold her family’s vacation home, but this decision seemed to me almost sentimental, in that she does not want to go there again and relive the memories with her husband that the house will revive.  Little by little, Nora expands her boundaries and allows her love of music—one passion that Maurice did not share—to resurface.  This novel is quintessentially subtle and understated in every way—in the manner in which Nora grieves and then the manner in which she reawakens.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

BROOKLYN by Colm Toibin

Eilis Lacey would be content to stay in Ireland and take care of her mother.  Unfortunately, that duty falls to Eilis’s popular sister Rose, because Rose has a job.  In many ways, Eilis is a victim of the times (1950s?) in that she has to marry or find a way to earn a living.  (OK, maybe things aren’t that different in the 21st century.)  In Ireland, her prospects are not good for either option.  Father Flood, a priest who lives in Brooklyn, is willing to help relocate Eilis to the U.S., where he can set her up with housing and a job on the shop floor of a department store.  Eilis is not the most confident woman ever to immigrate to our shores, but she is not exactly bewildered, either.  She adapts rather quickly to her new life, despite one severe bout of homesickness.  To help fill the time and to improve her situation at the department store, she enrolls in bookkeeping classes and excels at her studies.  At a dance she meets a young Italian plumber named Tony, and they begin dating.  When tragedy strikes back in Ireland, she has to make some decisions about her future.  A particularly sticky dilemma ensues, and I particularly liked the fact that the author keeps us in the dark about how things will turn out until the last 10 pages of the book.  Eilis is a character who makes some mistakes, but I still admired her pluck, especially in some uncomfortable situations.  She’s not particularly outspoken, but she does let fly a few pointed barbs now and then, particularly to her haughty fellow female boarders in Brooklyn.  The complications in her life seemed very believable to me, and the author does an outstanding job of leading the reader through the series of small steps that land Eilis between a rock and a hard place—a quandary of her own making.  I was afraid that the author might cop out by eliminating one of her choices somehow, but he does force her hand, finally giving us a clear picture of what she’s made of.  

Wednesday, October 7, 2015


Ah—another family saga.  In this case we have the Whitshanks, with wayward biological son Denny, and the steady, reliable adopted son Stem, plus two nondescript daughters, all of whom are grown and helping out their aging parents, Abby and Red.  An unexpected death changes the family dynamic, but I could never get really emotionally involved in this story.  The backstory of Red’s parents, Linnie Mae and Junior, is the most absorbing part of the novel.  Linnie Mae at thirteen seduces the much older Junior and then tracks him down five years later.  He wants nothing to do with her, but, of course, one thing leads to another, and then he’s caught in a web that is just too much trouble to escape.  Linnie Mae comes across as completely clueless until we realize that she’s really as sly as a fox.  This novel is very readable, but ultimately I found it to be bland and depressing and lacking the author’s usual quirkiness.  Maybe Denny is a little quirky, calling his parents early in the novel and ending the conversation by proclaiming that he’s gay.  He’s apparently not, but I never quite figured out the purpose of the call, except to grab the reader’s attention.  Did Denny intend this announcement as a joke?  I guess it is just Denny being Denny, the child who consumes his parents’ attention, and all the while feeling that Stem is the one his parents love best.  Stem is the heir apparent to the family business, and he expresses his gratitude to Red and Abby for taking him in and raising him by being more solicitous and attentive than their biological children—at least until a secret about his parentage is revealed, altering his attitude entirely.  It’s hard to love a goody-two-shoes character, especially one with a chip on his shoulder, so we’re left with Denny, a Peter Pan who we will hope will grow up after the dust settles.

Saturday, October 3, 2015


The book opens with Morgan Gower posing as a doctor who then delivers a young woman’s baby in the back seat of his car, with the help of her husband.  The young couple, Emily and Leon, are bohemian puppeteers, performing fairy tales for children, but it is Morgan who lives in a world of make-believe, changing personas and outfits as suit his whim.   Emily and Leon do not discover until much later that Morgan actually works in a hardware store and frequently passes himself off as someone with another profession. Morgan is quite a jack of all trades and relatively harmless, but then he starts stalking Emily and Leon and falls in love with Emily.  At times, I couldn’t decide if Morgan was really in love with Emily or merely with the idea of her, dressed in a leotard, wrap-around skirt, and ballet slippers.  The big question is whether or not she will return Morgan’s affection.  She and Leon are so very different from Morgan, with their sparsely furnished home, in stark contrast to Morgan’s home, which he shares with his wife Bonny, his sister Brindle, his mother Louisa, and 7 daughters, all grown, who dart in and out of the house with their own families.  His home life is one of happy chaos, but Emily and Leon do not lead an ideal existence, either.   As Leon becomes increasingly more disgruntled and grouchy, the door opens for Morgan to act on his midlife-crisis infatuation.  I don’t always relate to Anne Tyler’s characters, but I almost always enjoy their quirky antics, and this novel is no exception.  Ever curious and well-meaning, Morgan is a delightful, buffoonish character, although I found him a little creepy early on in his voyeurism as he lurked behind corners, watching and following Emily and Leon.  However, the LOL moments way outweigh the creepy ones.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

A GOD IN RUINS by Kate Atkinson

The main character may be Teddy Todd, but this is pretty much a family saga, told in no particular order.  The book covers Teddy’s life from start to finish but meanders all over the place as far as the time sequence.  The gimmick of the day at one time was stream of consciousness, but now many novelists seem to shuffle the events in the story into a random order.  Sometimes the author has an obvious purpose in revealing what ultimately happens and then enlightening us later about prior events, but in this case I felt like the popping back and forth was just for the sake of variety.   A large portion of the book is devoted to Teddy’s experiences as a RAF fighter pilot during WWII, and I found those sections to be crammed with too much detail.  The author may have intended those sections to be the heart of the novel, but, frankly, other WWII novels have moved me more than this one did.  Teddy’s life after the war is fairly mundane—marrying his childhood sweetheart and raising a daughter who then abandons her children in order to pursue political causes.  Teddy’s grandchildren then refuse to spend time with their mother after they become adults—sort of like the son in Harry Chapin’s song “Cat’s in the Cradle.”  The ending to this novel is the most memorable part, and I reread it several times, just because I was so stunned.  I thought the ending was very similar to another WWII novel that I didn’t really like and that I won’t mention by name, because it would give too much away.  The author is obviously trying to make a point with the ending, and I get it, but I don’t think it’s completely effective.  What exactly was the point of Teddy’s life after the war?  I think he always felt that being a fighter pilot was what he was meant to do, and everything after that was fairly ordinary, in the greater scheme of things.   Maybe raising his grandchildren gave him some feeling of worth later on, but he harbored a lot of guilt for having sent his grandson to live with the boy’s horrible paternal grandparents for a while.  Other than that, Terry’s accomplishments after the war are not remarkable or particularly worth reading about.  I do love Kate Atkinson’s writing style, but it just wasn’t enough for me here.  

Saturday, September 26, 2015


As the title suggests, this book is weird, though not necessarily emotionally.  The author differentiates at least five storylines with different fonts, but I could only follow the two main ones.  (The other three are snippets from novels written by characters in the main storyline.)  Effie is a university student who is habitually late with her homework, but her stoner boyfriend Bob is even worse.  A smattering of other characters include two dogs, a bunch of indistinguishable fellow students, several nutty professors, and a shady private eye.  Interspersed within the text are interjections from Effie’s mother Nora, who isn’t really her mother, but I have to say that her snarky comments were often quite entertaining.  The reader has the sense that Effie is reading this novel to Nora, and Nora is making unsolicited comments that influence Effie to change the plot from time to time.  (Perhaps this technique is sort of a precursor to the author’s various lives for Ursula in Life After LIfe.)  The true puzzle of the novel, I guess, is that of Effie’s parentage, but I found that whole subplot to be really distracting.  I’m a huge Kate Atkinson fan, but all the literary shenanigans here just didn’t really work for me.  There’s too much going on, and yet I have to agree with Nora’s observation about the main storyline that nothing much happens.  Atkinson’s strong suit is always sparkling dialog, and this book does not disappoint in that regard.  Professor Cousins and Bob both voice some real zingers, and two women who have temporarily escaped their retirement home are hilarious.  Effie is just sort of a stationary object for the other more colorful characters to revolve around.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

WILD by Cheryl Strayed

Authors who write successful memoirs almost always have a comeback story to tell.  Frankly, they all strike me as a little self-congratulatory, and this one is no exception.  Twenty-something Cheryl Strayed has never emotionally recovered from the death of her mother, and her grief has left her so bereft of good sense that she cheats on her beloved husband and becomes addicted to heroin.  To get her life back on track, she decides to backpack the Pacific Crest Trail alone for three months, despite a cavalier disregard for the need to train.  Her pack is so extraordinarily heavy that she cannot lift it without putting it on, and her boots cause blisters on her feet and blacken her toe nails.  In any case, she trundles on, facing threatening wildlife, snow and ice, intimidating hunters of the two-legged variety, and dehydration, with guts and optimism—most of the time, at least.  She’s not a whiner, but she is incredibly foolish, and somehow she survives, thanks to a fair amount of good luck, the kindness of strangers, and sheer willpower.  However, I can’t say that I ever warmed up to her.  For one thing, I found her story totally lacking in humor.  Her myriad mistakes are not funny at all; on the contrary, they’re quite depressing.  I admire her for making the trip and thus digging herself out of a debilitating funk, but, to me, this story is a little too much about Cheryl patting herself on the back.  She marvels at the fact that men still find her attractive when she hasn’t bathed in two weeks, but I’m more impressed with her refusal to give up or to give in to fear, although her nightmares about Bigfoot seemed a little nutty.  Still, after all she’s overcome, I guess she’s earned the right to strut her stuff.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

EUPHORIA by Lily King

Fen and Nell are cultural anthropologists in the 1930s, married to one another, searching for a new tribe to study in New Guinea, after fleeing from the terrifying Mumbanyo.  Bankson, an Englishman in a state of personal despair, becomes enraptured by both Fen and Nell, and sees them as his salvation as he delivers them upriver to the Tam village.  Nell has published a very successful book, and Fen, who lacks the discipline to create a work of similar import, becomes increasingly more volatile as his feelings of frustration and jealousy mount.  Both Fen and Nell see Bankson as a mediating influence.  He brings out the best in both of them, and the threesome brainstorm “the Grid,” which is their newfound classification system for various cultures and even individuals.  Nell and Bankson see each other as kindred spirits, but Nell is reluctant to take their relationship any further while she is trying to conceive a child with Fen.  The heart of this book is the fascinating love triangle, but there are several underlying themes, especially with regard to anthropology as a science.  The question of how much the scientists’ presence distorts the culture being studied is a controversy without an easy solution.  This novel also separates cultural anthropologists into those like Fen, who want to become part of the tribe being studied, and those like Nell who can’t wait to tell the world about her theories and findings.  A dark sense of foreboding hangs over most of the novel, so that even as I was flipping pages with relish, I wanted to put on the brakes to avoid slamming into the inevitable conclusion.  The author allows bits and pieces of seemingly unimportant information to trickle into the story and then play a large role in the finale.  If I have a quibble with this book it’s that having Bankson as the first-person narrator takes a little getting used to, given that the author is a woman.  In any case, she has woven an exquisite web of passion with an understated thread of suspense that I found totally enthralling.  Euphoria indeed.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015


It’s 1977, and we know from the beginning that Lydia Lee is dead.  The pertinent questions then are how and why.  As the mystery of her death unfolds, the layers of a seriously dysfunctional family are peeled back.  Lydia and her brother Nathan are the only Asian-Americans in their high school, and both struggle with loneliness. Lydia is more than just the apple of her parents’ eyes; she is her mother Marilyn’s designated avatar to achieve her unfulfilled goal of becoming a physician.  Lydia’s father James, acutely aware that his children are battling the same prejudices that he has, just wants Lydia to fit in and be popular.  However, Lydia goes to great lengths to conceal her dearth of friends from her father and has made a pact with herself to please her mother in every way possible, at the expense of her own happiness.  She finally rebels by striking up a friendship with Jack, a neighbor boy with a scandalous reputation.  Nathan is the only one in the family who knows about this clandestine relationship and strongly suspects that Jack knows more than he’s telling about what happened to Lydia.  Jack’s nervous behavior suggests that Nathan is right and that Jack might even be involved somehow in Lydia’s death.  I love the way this story unfolds as we slowly get to know Lydia and what was going on in her head, but I found it difficult to really like anyone in the family except the youngest daughter Hannah, who was born after the most traumatic family crisis prior to Lydia’s disappearance.  She seems to be the least damaged and the most perceptive when it comes to judging character.  However, her participation in the family drama is tangential, and drama abounds.  I always find a novel unsettling when it concerns parents who are completely in the dark about their children’s lives. In this case, the frustrations and disappointments of the parents are trickling down to their children in unpredictable ways.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015


The setting is London in the 1920s, and the city is still reeling from the war.  26-year-old Frances Wray and her mother are barely scraping by, since all the men in the family have died.  To help cover the upkeep costs of their home, they take in lodgers.  The “paying guests,” Lilian and Leonard, are also in their 20s, but their rung on the social ladder is lower than that of the Wrays.  Still, they can afford the rent, thanks to Len’s job with an insurance company.  At first, the comings and goings of the new couple are a minor nuisance, but Frances and Lilian strike up a friendship that turns into a love affair.  The plot takes a sharp turn in another direction when an argument gets out of hand, and the two women make an extremely ill-advised decision.  I do not love reading about people doing incredibly stupid things, and I am not referring to their trysts.  On that subject, though, I found it odd that Frances is very jealous of Len, but Lilian never feels that she is betraying Len with Frances.  In other words, the two lovers have very different perspectives on what a sexual relationship with another woman represents.  Their passionate encounters become boring and repetitive after a while, but then the pivotal event occurs, and I just wanted to get the whole sordid messy aftermath over with, as did the characters.  The author did a great job of conveying how the weeks and then months dragged on and on, but I found the whole process just excruciating, with the two women continually agonizing over what steps to take.  At one point, Lilian suggests a course of action that finally makes sense, but Frances talks her out of it.  Then, a few weeks later, Frances makes the same suggestion, but Lilian talks her out of it.  I just wanted to pull my hair out.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

THE SHADOW OF THE WIND by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Like A. S. Byatt’s Possession, this novel has two characters investigating the mystery of two parallel lives from a previous generation.  The similarities don’t end there, but that’s another subject for another day.  In this book, Daniel Sempere, who lives with his father in Barcelona, discovers a lost novel by Julián Carax entitled The Shadow of the Wind.  He soon gets caught up, not only in the novel, but in the mystery surrounding the author, who is presumed dead.  He soon finds himself being stalked by an evil police officer and by a sinister man intent on destroying all of Carax’s work.  Daniel enlists the help of Fermín, a former homeless man who now works in Daniel’s father’s bookstore, and Bea, the beautiful sister of Daniel’s best friend.  Daniel’s quest takes him to the home of Nuria, who knows more than she’s telling and tries to throw Daniel off the track, to a haunted mansion once occupied by the family of Penélope, who was Julián’s great love, and to a paupers’ hospice for the elderly.  I found the plot to be a little predictable, although one particular revelation caught me by surprise, despite all the clues.  More frustrating was that I occasionally had to remind myself that Julián was not Daniel and vice versa.  I’m no expert, but I would say that this is a very good translation, since there are a few clever plays on words that probably required some alteration from the Spanish but rendered the desired humorous effect.  For me, the pace was a little slow, and, although there was plenty of confusion to go around, the general gist of it was very clear.  At the end the author provides a walking tour of Barcelona that highlights some of the real landmarks that figure into the story.  I have never been to Barcelona, but I think following this itinerary in order to become familiar with the setting would be worthwhile, but then I would have to reread the book.  Unfortunately, I did not love it enough to traipse through it again.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015


Once again, Julia Glass comes through with a novel that draws you in with gorgeous prose and characters that you don’t want to let go of.  Kit Noonan is an unemployed father and husband who seems to be lingering at a crossroads.  His wife Sandra urges him to undertake a quest to find out who his biological father is.  His mother Daphne, a talented cellist and music teacher, has always adamantly refused to disgorge any details.  For lack of a better option, Kit pays a visit to his stepfather, Jasper, one of many delightful characters in this novel.  Jasper does know a bit about Kit’s paternity but promised long ago not to divulge this secret.  Kit proves himself to be a useful guest, and we readers soon realize that he’s a good guy stuck in limbo.  Will the discovery of his lineage provide the impetus to his escape from the quicksand that has bogged him down for years?  The story unwinds at a perfect pace without ever leaving us hanging for very long.  The author employs an interesting technique of skipping over pivotal events, leaving the reader to wonder what transpired.  Then she revisits these moments in retrospect, allowing us to absorb their impact along with the character who is reflecting on what happened.  I have a minor quibble with a tragedy that occurs toward the end of the novel, because I thought the author set it up a little too obviously.  However, it’s just a quibble, rather than a full-blown complaint.  All in all, this is an exquisite novel.  Some of the characters are reprised from Three Junes, motivating me to reread at least the middle section of that novel, just so that I can commune with these characters a little longer, resurrect them, and reevaluate them with the additional backstory, as well as future events, that this novel recounts.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

THE DREAM LOVER by Elizabeth Berg

George Sand, pen name of French writer Aurore Dupin, led quite an avant garde life.  Somehow, though, this book just makes her life seem like one failed relationship after another, including her embattled relationship with her daughter.  I waded through 80% of this book before finally getting to the 9-year relationship that I was most interested in, only to have it be glossed over in a few pages.  Sometimes I think historical fiction authors focus so much on their research that they neglect their obligation to engage the reader.  George Sand strikes me as an unconventional woman, dressing in men’s clothing in order to get cheaper opera tickets and then adopting that style of dress as her regular attire.  I have never read any of George Sand’s work, and I had hoped that this novel would give me a glimpse of what she had produced, but her novels seemed to be primarily autobiographical, and nothing in their descriptions here seemed worthy of greatness.  Sand knew quite a few other great artists, writers, and composers of the time, including Flaubert, Balzac, Delacroix, Victor Hugo, Chopin, and Liszt, and I would have expected Berg to give us at least an introduction to their works as well.  However, I had the feeling that Berg assumed that all her readers were already familiar with what these artists had accomplished and chose to mention only a very few such oeuvres.  As for George Sand’s lovers, I could barely keep them straight.  Berg employs the ever-popular dual timeline, which seems completely unnecessary here, until the two narratives converge and the novel mercifully ends.  As we approach the conclusion, Berg suggests that Sand’s husband is not her daughter Solange’s biological father, but by this time I could recall nothing about the man who was possibly the real father.  Lastly, I do not understand the title.  The only dream that I can recall was Sand’s dream of her own personal deity, Corambe, and I certainly don’t think George Sand loved dreams or was the lover anyone dreamed of, nor did she have any such lovers, and I never got the impression that Sand was any artist’s muse or inspiration.  I kept expecting the author to reveal the source of the title at some point, but if there was such a revelation, I missed it.  Again, maybe the author took too much for granted with regard to her readers’ knowledge of the subject matter.  Prior to reading this novel, I had a 50-50 impression of Berg, having loved The Art of Mending but having barely tolerated We Are All Welcome Here.  This novel tips the scales toward the negative, so that I hope my book club doesn’t choose any more of her stuff.  For a much better novel about a fascinating female writer with lots of famous friends, read Vanessa and Her Sister instead.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015


Naomi is a jazz singer in Chicago in the 60s who loves performing more than anything else--or anyone else for that matter, including her 11-year-old daughter Sophia.  We get to know Naomi through Sophia’s very adult voice, but Sophia’s narration alternates with that of a teenage Naomi, who is bribed to abandon her family farm to avoid scandal.  Naomi’s life repeatedly crosses paths with David, the brother of her hometown best friend, but the stabilizing rock that she leans on is Jim, a cop-turned-photographer, whose love for Naomi is unrequited and seems completely foolish, but he loves and protects Sophia as if she were his own child.  Sophia, who routinely watches her mother’s shows from the wings, has only adult friends, until she bonds with Elizabeth, a black girI she meets at school.  Elizabeth’s parents feel that Sophia’s home life--in a hotel with a mother who sleeps until noon and allows Jim to deliver and retrieve her daughter to and from school--is too sleazy for their well-bred daughter.  The lies and general commotion bring Naomi’s qualifications as a parent into question and with good reason.  I often had to remind myself of whose narration I was reading, Naomi’s or Sophia’s, mostly because they both had such sad childhoods; Naomi’s was loveless, and Sophia’s is unconventional at best.  Sophia teeters between two conflicting sentiments, on the one hand wishing for a more stable life in which her mother doesn’t constantly exhibit mortifying behavior, but on the other hand, afraid of forever losing the shreds of sanity and attention that are as ephemeral as passing clouds.  Sophia’s inner turmoil drew me in, but I also loved the vibe of this novel, with its smoky bars and drag queens and a sympathetic nun who helps the impetuous Naomi find her own calling.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015


When I saw that a TV series based on this book was appearing on BBC America, I decided to dust off my copy and read it.  At almost 800 pages, with an overwhelming plethora of footnotes, the novel is somewhat daunting.  I soon switched to an eBook, because the book’s heft limits its portability.  I was also delighted to see that the eBook swept all those pesky footnotes to the end, so that I could ignore them without guilt.  I’ve heard this book billed as a sort of adult Harry Potter novel, and it is about magic in England.  The similarities end there.  Although I suppose they’re both cheeky in their own way, I prefer the boy wizard.  In any case, Mr. Norrell announces to a society of “theoretical” magicians, i.e., magicians who read about magic without ever performing any, that he is, in fact, a “practical” magician and reveals his talents by bringing a group of statues to life.  Soon he takes on Jonathan Strange as a pupil.  Norrell, despite having accomplished the feat of bringing a dead woman back to life, is the more conservative of the two magicians and has acquired a magnificent collection of reference books on magic, which he refuses to share with Strange or anyone else for that matter.  After Strange becomes involved with Wellington’s war efforts against Napoleon, Norrell and Strange part ways and become rivals.  Strange is flashy, fearless, and flamboyant, as he explores the legacy of the Raven King, the 12th century magician extraordinaire, whom Norrell has always made every effort to ignore, because he strives to be a “respectable” magician, whereas the Raven King was not.  The supporting characters include a couple of servants with wavering loyalties, Norrell’s foppish entourage of Drawlight and Lascelles, and two women who straddle the real world and the faerie world.  The real feat of this book is that the author is very effective at evoking the early 19th century world with her language and antiquated spelling and makes this fantasy yarn sound like historical fact.  Neither J.K. Rowling nor J.R.R. Tolkien accomplished that.  I may have laughed out loud while reading this book, maybe once every 100 pages, but I grew weary between chuckles.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

THE NIGHTINGALE by Kristin Hannah

Once again, we have a best-selling novel that everyone is raving about, but I don’t understand what all the hubbub is about.  Two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, are coping with the German occupation of France during WWII in very different ways.  Vianne, whose husband is at the front, has only one objective and that is to keep her daughter Sophie safe.  Isabelle, on the other hand, would be a soldier herself if she could, but instead she becomes a key player for the Resistance and bears the code name “Nightingale.”  Both women are strong in their own way but different as night and day.  Impetuous Isabelle jumps into the fray with both feet, fully aware of the dangerous consequences of one wrong move, while naïve Vianne is the one making all the foolish mistakes.  Vianne fails to grasp how dire the situation is, trusting that the Germans will do the right thing.  Ha!  Plus, she believes the worst of Isabelle, who is actually trying to act strategically rather than just cope day-to-day.  On the other hand, starvation is a real threat, and Vianne has to seize the opportunities to survive that come her way.  Certainly, the heart of the story belongs to Isabelle, and her adventures kept me reading.  I get it that Vianne is suffering more, trying to stretch meager rations so that she and Sophie can survive the winters, but the more interesting part of her story has to do with the German officer who billets at her home.  I am certainly not in a position to judge how realistic the plot of this book is, but the uninspired prose detracts mightily from the gravity of the storyline.  David Gillham’s City of Women is a much better treatment of women trying to save lives during WWII.  In fact, I felt that this book was sort of a combination of City of Women and All the Light We Cannot See but not an improvement over either of them.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

MR. MERCEDES by Stephen King

When Stephen King gives us a detective novel about a sociopathic killer, we can assume that there will be plenty of nail-biting suspense and some collateral damage.  Bill Hodges is a retired cop who needs a reason not to eat a bullet.   The guy who intentionally drove a stolen Mercedes into a line of job seekers while Hodges was still on the force gives him just such a reason, in the form of a taunting letter.  Hodges locks up his gun and turns off his TV to take another shot at tracking down the Mercedes killer without telling the police.  Instead, he enlists the help of Jerome, his computer-savvy, Harvard-bound lawn guy, and Janey, the sister of the now deceased owner of the Mercedes.  Later, he adds Janey’s niece, the neurotic, insecure Holly to his team.  Holly is another character in need of purpose and proves to be quicker at figuring some things out than either Hodges or Jerome.  We know from the getgo that the killer is Brady Hartfield.  He does double-duty as both a computer technician and an ice cream man, so that his ubiquitous presence in the neighborhood doesn’t draw suspicion, except from a woman with no credibility, because she thinks extraterrestrials live among us.  Hodges keeps finding that he’s jumped to inaccurate conclusions, with dire consequences, and the plot frequently defies logic, with Hodges’s helpers guessing people’s computer passwords right and left.  Also, after Brady makes a death threat, I expected Hodges to become a little more cautious, but no such luck.  I wasn’t sure if Hodges just felt that he could outsmart Brady eventually or if he thought sacrificing a few lives to prevent a mass murder was worth the risk.   I got a good chuckle out of the author’s allusion the movie Christine, based on his own novel.  This was a definite clue that King is not taking himself too seriously here, and maybe we shouldn’t, either.  On the other hand, I couldn’t help being aware that King himself almost died after being hit by a car, and I have to wonder if that event is still his own personal horror story and possibly propelled him to write a novel about a murderous driver.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

MARY COIN by Marisa Silver

This novel has three main characters:   photographer Vera Dare, “migrant mother” Mary Coin, and modern-day college professor Walker Dodge.  Mary Coin is the quintessential farm worker during the Depression, struggling to feed seven children.  She is the fictional counterpart of Florence Thompson, who in real life had ten children (!) and was the subject of a photo that appeared in many publications as an example of the dire times.  Vera Dare represents Dorothea Lange, the photographer who snaps photos of Mary and her children while they wait for a car repair.  The look of consternation on Mary’s face says it all.  Her life has become an endless quest to find work, no matter how back-breaking, and she can find herself abruptly out of work at any moment as a result of failed crops or unpredictable weather.  The author delays enlightening us as to how Walker fits in until late in the novel, but it’s clear that Walker’s forebears managed to survive the Depression without losing their land or their homes.  Mary and Vera, on the other hand, have mouths to feed and men who don’t always stick around when the going gets tough.  The irony is that Vera has a much steadier income than Mary, but Vera is the one who has to put her sons into the care of another family when she can no longer make ends meet.  Plus, her travels to document the plight of the workers create too much instability for the children anyway.  She and Mary have only the one encounter with each other, but Vera makes the most of it, eliciting information from Mary that Mary would not normally have shared with a stranger.  The fact that Mary’s photo becomes ubiquitous somewhat rankles her later in life, as Vera never offered her a penny for using her likeness.  Vera never profited directly from the photo, either, but she certainly made a name for herself with it.  Finally, the tie-in with Walker’s family is worth the wait.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

THE ACCIDENT by Chris Pavone

Isabel Reed is a New York literary agent who has had her share of ups and downs.  Now she has received a mysterious anonymous manuscript called The Accident that exposes famous media mogul Charlie Wolfe as a murderer.  Wolfe’s list of crimes will become even longer, because he will go to any length to squelch the publication of this damning exposé and has enlisted the help of CIA operative Hayden Gray.  (I thought Hayden’s involvement was a little odd and his connection to Wolfe a little thin, but that’s a minor quibble on my part.)  News of the manuscript has spread, and everyone who reads it seizes an opportunity to capitalize on its value, without realizing how the explosive nature of the book’s content is a source of imminent danger.  Copies start to proliferate, jeopardizing the life of anyone who has one.  The author of the manuscript, who may have faked his own death, turns out to be a long-time friend of Charlie’s.  Isabel offers the publishing rights to her editor-friend, Jeff Fielder, who happens to be in love with Isabel.  When they both realize that their lives are at risk, they flee the city and try to throw their pursuers off track.  Meanwhile, another woman who has purloined a copy makes her way to L.A. to meet with a film producer so that she can procure movie rights, thus increasing the manuscript’s exposure even more and widening the scope of Hayden’s efforts.  The action bounces around across Europe and the U.S., and it’s a veritable thrill ride.  Interspersed within the narrative are excerpts from the manuscript itself, as well as musings from its author.  A few twists and revelations at the end make the novel even juicier.  Pavone’s novel has no real moral dilemma; the good guys are good, and the bad guys are bad, but the author of the manuscript is somewhat devious himself, and the ambiguity surrounding this character is mostly what kept my eyes glued to the pages.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

THE EXPATS by Chris Pavone

When I think of expats, I think of Hemingway and Fitzgerald in Europe drinking absinthe.  Here we have a trailing spouse in Luxembourg whose husband Dexter has accepted a contract position as a computer security expert.  His life doesn’t seem too exciting, especially with a name like Dexter, but his wife Kate has to jump through some hoops in the form of exit interviews with the CIA.  Dexter knows that Kate had a government job but has no real clue what she did.  Likewise, Kate has only the vaguest notion of what Dexter does all day long and soon comes to wonder if her husband is up to something. Her suspicions largely stem from the fact that fellow expat couple Julia and Bill seem to be hovering a little too closely.  Kate’s past as an operative includes one particularly sticky encounter that haunts her, and she has to start doing some of her own snooping to find out if she or Dexter is the object of Julia and Bill’s constant attention.  The question in the reader’s mind, and, to some degree in Kate’s as well, is whether Kate is just paranoid and bored and looking for any excuse to initiate some clandestine activities. Plotwise, this is a gem.  As is the case with many spy novels, though, the characters, especially Dexter, are a little lacking in depth.  Kate doesn’t seem at all capable of assassinating baddies and overlooks some obvious intrusions by Bill and Julia.  Her own furtive investigations into Dexter’s doings are a bit amateurish, even getting herself videotaped in the act.  Still, we at least have a sense of who Kate is/was.  Dexter is kind of a nebulous nerd whom Kate has trusted all these years, mostly because if she delves into his work life too deeply, she fears that he will start asking about hers.  Thus we have sort of a Mexican standoff between two people who stifle their curiosity so as not to reveal too much about themselves.  The real question here is who has the most to hide.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

THE BOYS IN THE BOAT by Daniel James Brown

One thing I don’t like about non-fiction is that I often know the outcome.  Still, I loved the character portraits in this book, particularly that of its underdog main character, Joe Rantz.  Repeatedly thrown out of the house by his stepmother during the Depression, Joe had to live by his wits, as he struggled just to survive.  Finally, during his senior year of high school, his older brother invited him to come live with his family until graduation.  Joe’s athletic prowess caught the attention of University of Washington rowing coach Al Ulbrickson.  As one of many tall and muscular freshmen vying for a place on the rowing team, Joe had no experience whatsoever, but then neither did any of his competitors.  Constantly ridiculed for his impoverished wardrobe, Joe battled his insecurities and fear of abandonment while learning to rely on the other men in the boat.  The eight men on the team eventually forged a synergy that would serve them well when competing against the Ivy League schools in the East and their arch rival, the University of California Berkeley.  My favorite character in the book is George Pocock, the venerated boatbuilder who learned his trade in England, immigrated to North America, and eventually became the supplier of sculls to most of the top rowing teams in the country.  His gorgeous sculls were works of art, and his words of wisdom, for rowing and for life in general, appear at the beginning of every chapter.  Joe credited Pocock with helping him develop the mental attitude that turned around his rowing career.  Every good story needs some sort of adversity for the characters to overcome.  In this case, not only did Joe overcome the misfortune of his family circumstances, but the rowing team battled wind, rain, currents, frigid temperatures, and illness in a sport that looks almost effortless when the rowers are in “the swing.”  However, the author makes us feel how punishing the sport really is, especially when the coxswain asks for 10 big ones—10 mammoth strokes to try to catch up to and overtake an opponent.  These guys gave all they had and then reached deep into their souls to give some more.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


At first I was put off by the fact that this book consists entirely of fictional letters and diary entries, but the story was so engaging that I began to look forward to each successive narrator’s perspective, and there were too many narrators to mention.  The primary one is Vanessa Stephen, sister of Virginia Woolf, who is the unmarried Virginia Stephen throughout this novel.  Vanessa and Virginia are very close, especially after both parents die, and they take up residence with their two brothers in the Bloomsbury district of London.  Their home becomes a frequent meeting place for artists, writers, and thinkers, including novelist E.M. Forster and economist Maynard Keynes.  Romantic liaisons develop among these intellectuals, resulting in jealousy, heartbreak, and rifts, the most prominent of which is between the two sisters.  Virginia, the writer, looks down on visual artists, including Vanessa, while at the same time behaving extremely possessively toward her.  Virginia is also prone to mental breakdowns, and Vanessa has her hands full as the head of the household, until she finally deigns to marry Clive Bell, an art critic who adores her.  After their first child is born, however, Clive starts to feel neglected and seeks solace elsewhere.  Virginia, bent on driving a stake through the heart of the marriage so that she can reclaim Vanessa as her own, begins a flirtation with Clive that Vanessa eventually has to come to terms with.  In some ways this book is about sibling rivalry, but in trying to sabotage Vanessa’s marriage, Virginia proves herself to be a selfish, manipulative woman and basically the villain of this novel and the foil to Vanessa’s heroine.  The most engrossing ongoing correspondence in the book is between writer Lytton Strachey and foreign diplomat Leonard Woolf.  Strachey sings Virginia’s praises to Woolf and encourages him to marry her, if for no other reason than to get her out of Vanessa’s hair.  Almost as fascinating as the novel itself is the epilogue that the author provides to fill us in on what happened afterward.  There’s definitely enough material for another compelling novel, even if we know the outcome.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015


This is the second novel I’ve read in the past 6 months about an elderly person taking a long journey on foot, complete with a media circus and a spouse waiting at home.  (The other book is The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.)  In this case, Etta is the person on walkabout, crossing Canada from Saskatchewan to Nova Scotia.  She has difficulty remembering who she is and carries a sheet of paper with personal information on it, which she does remember to look at from time to time, with the help of a coyote who joins her en route.  Her husband Otto creates his own small bit of fame by populating his yard with life-size papier-maché animals that he constructs to pass the time.  The two begin corresponding, mirroring their earlier letter exchanges from the time when Otto was a soldier in Europe.  However, now Otto, who has no address for the wandering Etta, just accumulates the letters that he writes without every sending them.  I found it odd that Otto doesn’t embark on a search for his wife, especially since her journey seems dangerous and almost impossible for someone in her mental state.  However, he takes her leaving in stride, while his neighbor and life-long friend Russell is the one who decides to try to find Etta but then veers off on his own crusade.  No worries, though, because Etta has the coyote, whom she has dubbed James, accompanying her, and she and James consult with each other verbally about their journey.  I’m not sure if the author intended a little magical realism here or some inscrutable symbolism or a glimpse of Etta’s delusions or what.  The author also seems to have a penchant for symmetry.  Etta and Otto’s relationship begins with communication by correspondence, and now they’re at it again.  Then they both attract public attention with their separate endeavors, and eventually their souls seem to converge in a somewhat bafflng way.  The fact that Otto and Russell, who grew up in the same household, went to school on alternate days so that one would always be at home to do chores, struck me as peculiar and yet practical, with its own sort of symmetry.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015


Two 15-year-old girls are looking for adventure one night in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn.  Val persuades June to join her on a pink pool float in New York Bay.  Cree, a former boyfriend of Val’s sister, sees the two girls as they launch the flimsy raft, realizes how foolhardy their escapade is, and starts to swim after them.  Finding that he will never catch them in the current, he has to turn back.  The next morning, Jonathan Sprouse, a music teacher at the girls’ school, finds Val washed up under the pier.  She survives, but June and the raft have disappeared.  This story is gripping, and not just because we want to find out what happened to June.  These denizens of Red Hook, plus Fadi, who owns a bodega and prints a community newsletter, and Ren, a talented graffiti artist who does odd jobs for Fadi, draw us into their bleak and sometimes violent world.  Cree’s father Marcus died from a mindless gunshot wound, and Cree’s mother, a nurse who still hears Marcus’s voice in her head, refuses to leave the neighborhood.   Jonathan drinks too much and squanders his musical talent, accompanying a drag queen on piano on weekends.  He feels an affinity for Val and the guilt that is consuming her.  Ren is sort of a shadowy character but seems to have a good heart, instructing his minions to keep tidy the bench where Cree’s father was shot and spiffing up Cree’s father’s boat.  His role in the girls’ misadventure is a mystery.  Fadi is the eternal optimist, displaying posters offering a reward for information leading to June’s whereabouts, long after everyone else has given up hope.  Val is as lost as any teenager would be after losing her best friend, but her role in June’s disappearance makes life unbearable, and she turns to Jonathan for solace.  He has ghosts of his own to deal with and is certainly not an appropriate shoulder for Val to lean on anyway.  My favorite character might be Dawn/Don, the chanteuse in drag, who packs a mean punch when the situation calls for it, even in 5-inch heels.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015


Fiona Maye is a family services judge in London, consumed by her work, at the expense of her personal life.  Her husband Jack tells her that he is about to embark on an affair with a young co-worker, since the passion has gone out of their marriage.  Fiona unceremoniously sends him packing, changes the door locks, and immerses herself in her work and her piano.  Her current caseload includes a medical situation involving a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness.  The teenager, Adam, and his parents have refused a potentially life-saving transfusion on the basis of religious principles.  Before passing judgment, Fiona visits Adam in the hospital, and the two bond over music and poetry.  That visit, however, has unforeseen repercussions for both of them after Fiona renders her decision on the case.  This is the point at which I thought almost everything about the story became a foregone conclusion.  There is even a question about abandoning the law altogether, but that wavering comes from a defense attorney, not Fiona herself.  There are, however, nuances of the outcome that I did not expect, and, as always, McEwan’s writing is so fluid and pleasurable to read that I liked the book despite its predictability.  The novel is also rather short, not that I’m complaining, and feels almost like a short story.  Fiona commits a pivotal and impulsive act in the latter part of the book that seems odd and out of character but at the same time works as sort of a symbol of her re-igniting passion for something other than the law.  After receiving some very unsettling news, she delivers the most inspired musical performance of her life.  Powerful emotions can imbue music with meaning, whether you’re the musician or the listener, and sometimes we redirect such emotions toward some other aspect of our lives.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

THE ROSIE PROJECT by Graeme Simsion

Don Tillman is a genetics professor in Australia who appears to have an autism spectrum disorder.  Since married men are generally more successful than single men, he embarks on the “Wife Project” and devises a questionnaire for potential marital partners.  Meanwhile, his philandering buddy Gene sends a student named Rosie to meet Gene, and they hit it off, despite Rosie’s obvious unsuitability as a mate, in Gene’s estimation.  You can guess the rest.  The “Father Project” is the activity which binds this pair together, as Don and Rosie surreptitiously gather DNA samples in an effort to out Rosie’s real father.  This exercise has the expected outcome as well and introduces us to a swarm of characters that I found difficult to differentiate.  Unlike me, Don has a near-perfect memory that serves him well, especially when he and Rosie bartend at a class reunion attended by most of the candidates for the Father Project.  Don has memorized the recipes for myriad obscure cocktails, delighting the crowd with his expertise.  Obviously, Don is high-functioning, despite his social disability, which only seems to manifest itself at the most inopportune times.  Gene’s long-suffering wife Claudia takes on the task of mentoring Don in appropriate dress and behavior, with mixed results.  Don narrates the story with the expected nerdy-sounding voice, and I enjoyed seeing the world through his eyes, with his reactions to it.  His literal interpretation of various figures of speech provides the primary source of chuckles as I breezed through this book.  I would rate it as a pretty good summer beach read, and I can already envision it as a run-of-the-mill rom-com movie, unless the casting is particularly inspired.