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.