Wednesday, March 30, 2016

THE NAME OF THE ROSE by Umberto Eco

Unless you’re interested in esoteric 13th century debates on religion, such as did Jesus ever laugh and did Jesus own his clothes, then this is not the book for you—or me, for that matter.  I thought this was going to be a murder mystery, and it is, to some degree, but that aspect of the novel is buried in unending discussions of what constitutes religious heresy.  This novel is very long with reams of inscrutable allusions, incomprehensible vocabulary, and lots of untranslated Latin passages.  I can’t help wondering if some of my issues with this book are actually with the translator, William Weaver, but I’m certainly not going to read it again, if, in fact, another translation exists.  The action takes place in an Italian monastery, and the main character is Brother William of Baskerville, who has a Sherlock-Holmes-like knack for interpreting clues in the mysterious deaths of several monks.  William is the mentor for our young narrator, Adso, who tags along on William’s week-long investigation of the monastery, as the body count rises.  Several startling facts come to light, including the periodic visits by a woman, the more-than-brotherly affection between several monks, and the extreme inaccessibility of the library.  There is more than one history lesson here, but I found most of the historical discussions too dense for me to really grasp.  I did gather that Pope John XXII and Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV were seriously at odds, and the monks aligned themselves with one or the other, but I couldn’t keep up with who believed what.  There are the Minorites, the Fraticelli, the Dolcinians, the Catharists, the Cluniacs—just to name a few factions.  At one point, Adso’s response to a monk’s description of one of the sects is “What a complicated story.”  My sentiments exactly.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

LORD OF MISRULE by Jaimy Gordon

Before reading this book, all I knew about horses and horse racing I learned from the novel Seabiscuit.  Now I know a little about claiming races and what it was like to be involved in West Virginia claiming races in the 1970s, because the author immerses the reader in this milieu quite effectively.  Keeping up was a bit challenging for me, as the author tells the story from the perspective of several characters but all in third person, except the chapters devoted to Tommy Hansel, which are in second person.  Plus, there are no quotation marks so that it is difficult to discern what is dialog and what is just in the head of the character.  The chapters are grouped into sections, each named for a horse who will be racing in that section.  First we meet Medicine Ed, an old groom who dabbles in alchemy and potions.  His observations are the keenest and most reliable throughout.  Maggie is a young woman who formerly wrote food articles but now works for Tommy, a newcomer who is trying to make a quick buck with four horses.  He and Maggie are lovers, but Joe Dale Bigg, a vile and dangerous gangster/trainer, has his eye on Maggie as well.  Two-Tie, who literally wears two bow ties, is the local “financier,” i.e., loan shark, who happens to be Maggie’s uncle.  His mission is to protect Maggie, with some help from Medicine Ed, but her safety is anything but assured in this world of rough and tumble outlaws and wackos.  This book has it all—sex, violence, adventure, suspense--and the sadness that is the life of some of the horses, racing into old age.  The horses are characters unto themselves, each with his own unique personality, buffeted from one owner to another, like unfortunate pawns in a vengeful chess match.  I liked the unusual format and subject matter, but I couldn’t develop any real empathy for the human characters.  I was, however, caught up in their lifestyle that was so alien to me, but I didn’t bond with them.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

THE BOOK OF UNKNOWN AMERICANS by Cristina Henriquez

This novel has too many narrators, all Latino, who originated in a variety of countries.  Some are U.S. citizens, some have work visas, and some are undocumented.  Their heritage is as diverse as are their reasons for coming to the U.S., specifically Delaware.  The main families are the Toros (from Panama) and the Riveras (from Mexico).  The Toros have two sons—Enrique, who is away at college on a soccer scholarship, and Mayor, who cannot possibly live up to his brother’s standard.  The Riveras are new to the neighborhood, having left behind a comfortable life in order to pursue educational opportunities for their beautiful, brain-damaged daughter Maribel.  She and Mayor become close friends, but Maribel is na├»ve and therefore at risk of being exploited.  All of the characters struggle in one way or another—with their jobs, with their families, with the language, with the bigotry they endure constantly.  They make some serious mistakes, particularly the young people, but Alma, Maribel’s mother, withholds information from her husband, and then wonders if things might have turned out differently if she had been more forthcoming.  I really don’t like this type of foreshadowing.  Why does the author feel the need to warn us that this secret will lead to serious trouble?  For one thing, we know that secrets in novels rarely remain secret, and when the secret is exposed, all hell is going to break loose.  Also, there are some kind and helpful non-Latinos in the novel, especially the people at Maribel’s school, but none of the bad guys are Latinos.  Don’t get me wrong.  Certainly the Latino population in this country needs to have a voice that touts their immense contribution—economically, culturally, intellectually.  However, I agree with some other reviewers that this book’s perspective is a little skewed, and that detracts from its valuable message and its impact.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

MY SUNSHINE AWAY by M.O. Walsh

It’s hot in Baton Rouge, really hot, but we can’t blame the heat for all of the troubling events in a posh neighborhood and private school, where all the kids have just witnessed the Challenger disaster on TV.  As a teenager, our unnamed narrator is a person of interest in the rape of his friend and neighbor, Lindy Simpson.  At that time, he implies that he does not even know what rape is.  As the book goes on, we find that his adoration of Lindy is more of a freaky, warped obsession, and we begin to have doubts about his credibility.  The case goes cold, despite the existence of several other possible suspects:  a very scary psychiatrist, his unbalanced adopted son, and a hare-lipped teenager with a mean streak.  The narrator takes us on a journey for both Lindy and himself, and their journeys are weirdly parallel, as our narrator takes on the persona of whatever type of guy he thinks Lindy might appreciate and spies on her to boot.  Lindy appears to shake off the horrifying event, until the narrator makes a verbal gaffe that changes everything, especially his relationship with Lindy.  Then a tragedy occurs in his own family, and he cannot muster the grief that the event warrants, giving us further cause to doubt his innocence.  This second tragedy left me with some unanswered questions, but the author does at least give us closure in Lindy’s case.  Our narrator recounts lots of serious blunders on his treacherous path to adulthood, some of which may even cause his mother to wonder if she’s harboring a criminal.  Meanwhile, his absent dad, whose parental judgment is extremely off-kilter, is cohabiting with a coed, and I even put him on my list of suspects.  Anyway, this is much more than a whodunit with an unreliable narrator.  It’s a coming-of-age story, a family story, and an unrequited love story—if you want to call the narrator’s creepy fixation “love.”

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

WE ARE CALLED TO RISE by Laura McBride

This novel is full of people who have hurt those who love them:  a father who beats his wife, a son who beats his wife, a husband who cheats on his wife, and a grandson who attempts suicide.  The father who beats his wife is an Albanian immigrant and political refugee whose young son Bashkim is one of the narrators.  Avis, another narrator, has to bear both a husband who leaves her for his young assistant and a disturbed son, Nate, who has become violent after serving in the Iraqi war.  Finally, we have Luis, also a war vet, who is so traumatized that he cannot remember certain experiences, including a troubling letter to new pen pal Bashkim, and is so guilt-ridden over the unnecessary shooting of a child that he tries to kill himself.  The lives of Nate and Bashkim converge in a tragic event, not unlike the shooting in the Middle East for which Luis cannot forgive himself.  Regardless of how depressing all of this sounds, I could not wait to get back into this book every night.  Many of the characters are seriously flawed, but Avis, Luis, and Bashkim drew me in, and I so wanted things to get better for them.  Avis is a particularly sympathetic character, having endured a horrific childhood, then having lost a daughter and then raised Nate, who was a good son until he wasn’t.  Then she loses her husband, too, and I think I would have lost my sanity.  She manages to keep it together, though, befriending Nate’s battered wife Lauren and debating to what degree she should get involved.  Her dilemma, as torturous as it is, pales in comparison to what Luis and Bashkim are going through.  Luis has almost buried himself in guilt, and Bashkim has witnessed happenings that no adult should have to see, much less a child.  If you’re thinking that perhaps these two can offer each other some solace, you’ll just have to read this book to find out.