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.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015


I am usually a little put off when an author inserts herself into her novel, but here it seems to work.  Ruth (in the novel) is experiencing writer’s block when a plastic bag washes onto the shore near her home in British Columbia.  In the bag is the diary of a 16-year-old Japanese girl, Nao (pronounced “now” to go along with the time-related themes here), and Ruth becomes obsessed with Nao’s story, surmising that the tsunami of 2011 propelled the diary across the Pacific.  We alternate between Nao’s story and Ruth’s reaction to it.  Nao lived in Sunnyvale, CA, until her father lost his high tech job during the dot-com meltdown.  Now Nao and her family have returned to Japan, where Nao is having to adapt to Japanese school and suffers cruel bullying from her classmates, while the teachers look the other way or even join in the harassment.  Nao’s father’s self-esteem has reached rock-bottom, rendering him suicidal, and Nao figures that she may as well end her life, too.  Her great-uncle, a scholar drafted during WWII at the age of 19, died in a kamikaze mission, and Nao meets his ghost while visiting her great-grandmother.  At this point, supernatural events start to seep into the plot, leaving me a little less enthralled.  The author juggles a lot of themes here, but what really captured my attention was the unflattering picture she paints of Japanese society.  The novel Unbroken comes to mind, as well as The Distant Land of My Father, both of which recount the deplorable acts of the Japanese military during WWII, and this novel touches on that but brings us more up to date with what’s happening in civilian life today—suicides, teenaged prostitutes, internet hazing, and teachers complicit in bullying.  We’re obviously not immune to these problems, along with mass shootings and police brutality, here in the U.S., and I have to wonder how prevalent these issues are in Japan.  Are they limited to Tokyo?  The cover-up of what really happened at Fukushima nuclear power plant is particularly unsettling.  Did regulators really allow the dumping of tons of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean?  Maybe the water just leaked out—shades of the Exxon Valdez and the BP Gulf disaster.  In any case, Ozeki seemingly presents us with a cultural mindset that everything is OK, even when it’s not.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

THE DOVEKEEPERS by Alice Hoffman

My first problem with this book was that I didn’t know what C.E. meant.  Thanks to Wikipedia, I now know that it is the same as A.D., without the Christian overtones, and that means higher numbers are more current.  The Romans have driven the Jews out of Jerusalem and seem intent on slaying them wherever they find them.  Then again, I don’t think the Romans spared anyone that stood in the way of their conquering armies.  This novel, narrated by four women, takes place in the first century A.D., or C.E., if you prefer, in Masada, a town on top of a mesa, with a palace built by Herod.  Yael arrives pregnant with her first child after her lover and his wife have died of a fever during the journey through the desert.  Accompanying Yael is her father, a member of an assassination squad, who barely acknowledges Yael as his daughter, since Yael’s birth killed his wife.  Yael’s brother Amram is in love with Aziza, daughter of Shirah.  Aziza would be one of Masada’s most talented archers, but she is forbidden to use weapons because she is female.  Shirah is the mistress of the leader of Masada and is an expert in spells and potions.  Revka is the widow of a baker and had to kill her own daughter to end her suffering after a vicious attack.  She now has charge of two grandsons, who have not spoken since witnessing their mother’s death.  Shirah and Yael are lusty women in forbidden relationships, but the sex scenes in the book are not particularly erotic.  These were violent times, but, again, the violence is not particularly graphic, until we reach the gruesome finale.  I did not know anything about Masada prior to reading this novel, so that the conclusion struck me as particularly insane.  This is supposed to be a novel about resilient women, but I couldn’t help thinking that their paths would have been a lot less rocky if they hadn’t let themselves become swept up in affairs with married men.  Consequently, the virtues of these women seemed to be diminished by their impractical choices in matters of the heart.  Also, the men come across as brutes, while the women show compassion for doves, a Scandinavian slave, and certainly each other.  Aziza even loses her taste for battle when she witnesses the slaughter of women and children in a raid for provisions.  I wish I knew how historically accurate these opposing portraits of the two sexes are.  Now I’m halfway through the TV miniseries, and I already know that the ending is different, and half the characters are missing.  Perhaps it will be an improvement.

Monday, May 4, 2015

HERE ON EARTH by Alice Hoffman

March Murray, along with her teenaged daughter Gwen, has returned to her Massachusetts hometown of Jenkintown for a funeral, after an absence of almost 20 years.  She knows that she will also see Hollis, the love of her life.  When Hollis disappeared years ago to seek his fortune, March gave up waiting for him and married Richard Cooper, who loves her dearly.  Hollis made his fortune and then some, as he now owns just about everything in town.  While March and Hollis rekindle the flame of their passion, Gwen falls for Hollis’s ward Hank, who happens to be March’s nephew, making Gwen and Hank first cousins.  Gwen also develops a strong affinity for Tarot, Hollis’s washed-up racehorse who has a reputation for violent misbehavior.  When Gwen decides that she’d like to remain in Jenkintown, the way is clear for the two of them to move in with Hollis.  However, Hollis’s attachment to March does not extend to Gwen, another man’s daughter.  Meanwhile, Richard knows about his wife’s infidelity and wants her back anyway.  I would not call this a novel about love or even lust.  It’s about an obsession that gets way out of hand.  I know domestic situations like this exist, where a woman sacrifices everything, including her self-respect, to be with a man who doesn’t deserve her.  Still, March had a seemingly contented existence with Richard, but the unfinished business with Hollis probably tugged at her soul every day.  I found the fringe characters to be more interesting than March:  Susie Justice, who steers clear of all marriage opportunities; March’s cruel brother Alan whose grief won’t allow him to become sober; and Susie’s father (a judge named Justice?  Really?), who carried on an affair for decades under everyone’s noses.  The two big questions of the novel are whether March will come out of her trance and whether Alan will find redemption.  Gwen, though, is the one who really has an opportunity to learn what she’s made of.