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.