Wednesday, July 27, 2016

THE LINE OF BEAUTY by Alan Hollinghurst

Nick Guest is a guest—a lodger, actually—in the home of Conservative Parliament member Gerald and his wife Rachel, along with their grown children, Toby and Catherine. Toby and Nick were friends at Oxford, and Toby has invited Nick to move in with his family. Nick’s father is an antiques dealer, and Nick’s previous exposure to this level of posh gentility was limited to accompanying his father on clock-winding visits. It’s the late 1980s, and Nick is gay, so that the AIDs epidemic is lurking ominously on the horizon. Nick is an enigma, knowing that he does not quite fit in socially, but at the same time he somehow sees his host family members as friends. They, however, seem to view him more as a charity case who can help keep an eye on Catherine, who is bipolar. When she’s off her meds, she poses a threat to herself at least and may possibly be destructive in other ways. Nick is dangerous, too, in an entirely different way, blatantly snorting cocaine, right under the noses of the family, and meeting lovers in the garden. I couldn’t believe he would take his living situation for granted to the point that he would risk sullying Gerald’s political career. He overestimates his standing in the family, and in the end he realizes that his view of the family is seriously distorted. Their snobbish hypocrisy is obvious to the reader but not to Nick. There’s a reason his very rich friend Wani, short for Antoine, wants to keep their affair under wraps, and it’s not just for the sake of his Lebanese parents. Certainly, the appeal of this novel lies in its satirical treatment of upper-crusty manners, including a scene where high-as-a-kite Nick dances with Prime Minister Thatcher to a Rolling Stones tune. However, as a reader, you’ll be acutely aware that almost all of the male characters are gay, so that this novel’s world seems a little skewed in more ways than one. Hollinghurst’s sublime prose kept me interested in Nick’s fate, as I held onto the hope that he would stop making so many egregious errors in judgment before his world toppled around him.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

WHEN I'M GONE by Emily Bleeker

I read this book for book club, and I raced through it, just so that I could move on to something that I really wanted to read.  As a result, I didn’t suffer for very long, and, honestly, it could have been worse.  The writing wasn’t stellar, but then it wasn’t intolerable, either.  The premise is that Natalie dies of cancer but arranges to have letters sent to her husband Luke after her death.  Luke soon learns that Natalie has kept him in the dark about aspects of her past, and he, with some help from Natalie’s best friend Annie, sets out to untangle these secrets.  Annie is a character who comes across as alternately manipulative and wimpy, but then Natalie doesn’t fare much better.  As he gathers clues, Luke vacillates between anger at Natalie for her deceits and boundless grief over having lost her too soon.  The author throws in a good bit of conversation about the afterlife, or lack thereof, and I found this particular debate annoying.  I felt as though the author were trying to appease both believers and non-believers, and I really don’t like this sort of fainthearted fence-straddling.  Take a side, for crying out loud!  The author goes to some effort to keep the reader guessing, with quite a convoluted plot, full of red herrings and a few predictable outcomes.  However, there’s no real substance here—no redemption, no lessons learned, no self-help advice, and certainly no humor.   It’s basically just the unfolding of a mystery in a gimmick-y manner.  In fact, it’s as though Natalie wrote her own eulogy, full of confessions and advice for her bereaved husband, and then dragged it out for a few months.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016


Before I read this book, I knew that it was the darling of some critics, and that’s about it.  In fact, the title somehow made me think it would be funny.  Oh, man, was I ever wrong.  A beach read this is not.  It’s not weepy, either, thank heavens, but it is extremely tragic.  On the morning of her daughter’s wedding in Connecticut, June watches as her home explodes, killing her boyfriend Luke, her daughter, her daughter’s fiancĂ©, and June’s ex-husband.  An old gas stove appears to have been the culprit, but somehow most of the townspeople have shifted the blame to Luke, because he served a prison term for a dubious drug conviction.  After managing to get through the funerals, June embarks on a road trip to the West.  This novel is told from the standpoint of about a dozen or so characters at both ends of the country, all of whom have some sort of sad history.   Fitting all of them together into this puzzle of a book was a challenge but not necessarily an overwhelming one.  Perhaps the saddest character is Lydia, mother of Luke.  She has a lot to atone for, and now Luke is gone, so that she can never fully make amends, at least as far as her son is concerned.  We also have Silas, a teenager who worked for Luke.  The author dangles a tantalizing carrot for us, constantly suggesting that Silas possesses secret information about the explosion.  Silas is too young to bear this heavy a burden, and I was concerned for his well-being and survival.  This book has not only a staggering amount of guilt in it, but also a mountain of regret for words not said before it was too late.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

WOLF TOTEM by Jiang Rong

Chen Zhen is an educated young Chinese man in the 1960s who, with many other young urban intellectuals, goes to live with sheep herders in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, at the behest of the Chinese government.  Thanks largely to Bilgee, a wise old nomad who understands the delicately balanced ecology of the area, Chen comes to appreciate how vital the wolf population is to the continued success of the herders.  The sacrifice of a few lambs and foals to the occasional wolf attack is a fair trade-off, since the wolves keep the rodent population to a minimum.  The Chinese government, however, wants to relocate farmers to the area, and the wolves have to go.  I get that this novel is a condemnation of the Cultural Revolution, but it falls short in so many ways.  First of all, Chen’s obsession with raising a wolf cub is totally inconsistent with his reverence for the wolves and the grassland.  More annoying, though, is the author’s use of dialog to get points across about the protection and history of the land and the wildlife.  Characters sound as though they are quoting passages from an encyclopedia.  Yes, this is a translation, but I don’t think the Chinese would converse in such a stilted manner.  The book proceeds at a snail’s pace, partly because of all these sermons, and then the high body count for the animals made the book even more difficult to me to wade through.  Plus, I forget sometimes how important good writing is to my enjoyment of a book until I read one like this, which is not well-written at all.  The Kindle version is full of mistakes, particularly random repeated phrases that dangle randomly throughout the text, divorced from the sentences in which they originally appeared.  Bottom line:  The message is worthwhile, but the storytelling is not.