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.