Wednesday, December 13, 2017

THE SEA by John Banville

Max Morden has returned to a coastal villa that once was the summer residence of childhood playmates Chloe Grace and her mute twin brother Myles.  The Grace family appealed to Max not only because they were more affluent than his own family but also because young Max was initially attracted to Mrs. Grace.  This infatuation eventually dwindled as his attraction to Chloe grew.  The narrative goes back and forth in time, and in the present Max is still reeling from the death of his wife, Anna.  Several important revelations appear late in the novel, including the disclosure of a character’s identity, which I had already figured out.  The big question all along is what happened to Chloe and Myles.  We do find out the answer to that question, sort of.  However, there are lots of other dangling questions, including the subject of an argument between two women at dinner.  This omission seems like a copout to me.  The author also teases us with some snippets of another conversation that are intended to mislead us, as well as the other characters who overhear the conversation.  I found this to be a little cheesy as well.  He could have at least made the snippets a little more ambiguous.  After finishing the novel, I reread this section, and I’m even more baffled than ever, wondering if the snippets of conversation are not indicative of the rest of the conversation or if one of the participants in the conversation is not being truthful.  Myles’s inability to speak is never explained, either.  Perhaps the storyline just demanded his silence.  This novel beat out Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Julian Barnes’s Arthur and George for the 2005 Booker Prize, but I’m not sure why.  Perhaps the judges were swayed by the author’s prodigious vocabulary.  I finally dug out my ancient paperback dictionary, but many of the unfamiliar words were not there.  The upside is that now I understand the difference between the verbs “blanch” and “blench”—more or less.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW by Amor Towles

When Count Alexander Rostov finds himself under house arrest in Moscow as a result of the Bolshevik Revolution, he could just give up.  However, he has lived for years in a suite in the Hotel Metropol, and now he is confined to a small attic room in that same hotel.  With the help of an inquisitive child named Nina, he accepts his situation and even manages to spark a sense of adventure within himself, as they explore the less public rooms of the hotel together.  We’re not sure how she acquired it, but Nina also has a passkey, so that no room is off limits for this daring pair.  The novel spans several decades, as the Count makes the acquaintance of all sorts of people, including an American ambassador and a famous actress.  His world, however, is starkly insulated from the outside strife of the Soviet Union, WWII, and bad weather.  The reality of the proletarian society does emerge from time to time, most vividly when the wine labels in the wine cellar have all been removed, so that restaurant patrons’ only choice is between red and white.  The Count, however, maintains his diplomatic demeanor throughout, showing kindness, courtesy, and compassion.  He is certainly a charming character to cherish and remember.  The prose is exquisite, and so is the ending, but I found the pacing of most of the novel to be a little slow.  Still, I certainly admire the Count’s example of living his life to the fullest extent that his circumstances allow.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

SHOTGUN LOVESONGS by Nickolas Butler

Why do men sometimes feel compelled to confess their indiscretions?  This is a buddy book in which one buddy’s ill-advised admission drives a wedge into his relationship with his best friend.  Hank, along with his wife Beth and their two barely-mentioned children, runs a marginally profitable dairy farm in the small town of Little Wing, Wisconsin.  Lee is a wildly successful singer and songwriter who can’t seem to stay away from Little Wing.  Beth, along with former rodeo rider Ronny and obnoxious Kip, are the other first person narrators.  I found this employment of the ever-changing narrator to have both pluses and minuses.  On the plus side, we get a very good sense of who these characters are, or at least how they view themselves.  On the other hand, at times I felt that the author was having to stretch to make the narrator fit the narrative.  There’s one other contrivance in the book, and that’s a prank near the end that is intended as a catalyst to mending Lee and Hank’s broken friendship.  For me, getting your former best friend involved in a minor heist is not conductive to gaining his forgiveness, but what do I know about men’s friendships?  The bottom line is that while Hank and Beth grind out a living, Lee is living the dream but still wants what Hank and Beth have—each other.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

THE GOLDEN AGE by Joan London

The title refers to a polio rehab facility for children in Perth, Australia, that really did exist in the 1950s.  The story centers around two fictional 13-year-olds, Frank and Elsa, who become close while they are both residents of the facility.  Other than that, honestly, not much happens.  The equally poignant backstory is that Frank’s family emigrated from Hungary during WWII, and neither of his parents has been able to embrace their new homeland.  Frank seems at times to be a bit ashamed of his parents’ reduced station in life, until his mother renews her interest in music and proves that she is still a virtuoso pianist, after having abandoned the piano when Frank contracted polio.  The book certainly brings into focus the many heartbreaks associated with polio.  The physical impact is obviously huge, as Frank and Elsa endure the pain of trying to walk again.  This book also emphasizes that people reacted to the victims in the same way as they have in the past to leprosy or AIDS.  The contagious aspect of the disease causes families to speculate on how their children became exposed to it, but, more importantly, outsiders keep not only the victims at arm’s length, but also their family members as well.  This book is short on plot but long on educating us as to the devastating impact of this disease before the vaccine was introduced.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A PIECE OF THE WORLD by Christina Baker Kline

Before reading this book, I was not familiar with Andrew Wyeth’s iconic painting, “Christina’s World.”  This novel provides a backstory for Christina, the woman on the ground in the forefront of the painting.  Seen from behind, she is looking at a farmhouse, perhaps with longing, but we can’t see her face.  We learn in the novel that Christina is disabled and ultimately loses the ability walk, as the years wear on.  She is a stubborn woman, refusing a medical examination on multiple occasions.  I found this intransigence to be more telling about her personality than just about anything else.  I believe that her affliction gives her a sense of identity and uniqueness that she does not want to lose.  Her only opportunity for escaping her hard life on the farm is the attention of a young man who ultimately goes to Harvard and probably does not want to be married to a woman whose father forced her to quit school at the age of twelve.  When Christina is middle-aged, a friend becomes involved with Andrew Wyeth, who begins making regular visits to Christina’s home, which she shares with a younger brother.  Wyeth paints a number of various seemingly uninteresting objects in the house but brings a breath of fresh air to Christina’s otherwise dreary life.  The fact that someone who has lived her entire life in one place, rarely venturing beyond the boundaries of the Maine farm, should be immortalized in a painting known the world over is ironic but not uncommon.  What is uncommon is that in this case we don’t see the subject’s face.  This novel makes Christina human and reveals a bitter and lonely woman behind that hidden face.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

THE BONE CLOCKS by David Mitchell

Holly Sykes is 15 years old, possibly pregnant, and running away from home to live with her 20-something boyfriend.  Unfortunately, he’s now sleeping with her best friend.  Holly heads to a strawberry farm to get work, but along the way she has some strange encounters, possibly reminiscent of the “radio people” who once inhabited her mind.  Then we leave Holly’s teenage story to hear from a series of other narrators, but Holly is the thread that binds them all together.  The other narrators include a self-important author, an immortal being, a journalist, and—my personal favorite—Hugo Lamb, who falls in love with a grown-up Holly but then falls more in love with the prospect of immortality.  I kept hoping that he would wise up and rejoin the natural world, as opposed to the supernatural world, but, alas, we don’t hear from him again until the climactic battle of atemperals between the Anchorites and the Horologists, which I found to be a little hokey.  It was a bit too much like the battle in Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, a book which I didn’t particularly care for.  My absolute favorite section of the book is the last section, in which Holly faces unforeseen challenges, unrelated to her adventures alongside immortals with super powers.  This author likes to resurrect his characters in subsequent novels, and I’m hoping to meet Hugo Lamb again, even though he apparently had a bit part in Black Swan Green, which I have not read.  If Marinus can appear in three of David Mitchell’s novels, then I can only hope that Hugo make a third appearance as well.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET by David Mitchell

It’s 1799, and Jacob de Zoet has landed a job at the Dutch trading post Dejima, a manmade island off the coast of Nagasaki, Japan.  He has high hopes that this assignment will win him the approval of his girlfriend’s father when he returns to the Netherlands in five years.  His task is to clean up the Dejima’s accounting records and uncover financial irregularities within the company.  He is honest to a fault, but his superiors are not, so that he is a shining example of how no good deed goes unpunished.  Also, Jacob has become infatuated with a young aristocratic Japanese midwife, who after her father’s death, is sent to an unsavory abbey where the monks perform unthinkable acts in the interest of earning immortality.  She has another admirer, a Japanese interpreter, who stages a dicey rescue mission.  Overall, this novel is a bit dense but worth the effort.  The first quarter of the book is as dull as a post.  Then the second half gains steam when the daring attempted rescue of our plucky damsel in distress gets underway.  In the final quarter, a British frigate arrives in port, hoping to seize the Japanese copper before the Dutch can ship it out.  The British captain has gout, and his struggles with pain, with his Dutch informer, and especially with Jacob de Zoet, are borderline semi-humorous.  In any case, this last section is riveting and explosive, as Dejima has no copper and no defense.  Bottom line:  the Japanese are cruel; the Dutch are corrupt; and the Brits are untrustworthy.  The British captain just wants to save face, and I found it ironic that the Japanese during the shogun era were known for just that.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

A PALE VIEW OF HILLS by Kazuo Ishiguro

A Japanese woman, Etsuko, whose oldest daughter Keiko has just committed suicide, narrates this novel.  Etsuko now lives in London, and her second daughter has come to visit after the funeral.  However, most of the novel takes place in flashback to Nagasaki, just after WWII.  Etsuko remembers a time when she was pregnant with Keiko and became friends with another woman, Sachiko, and her daughter Mariko.  Mariko is a troubled child, for several reasons, and Sachiko doesn’t seem interested in setting boundaries for Mariko’s behavior.  Etsuko is a bit stunned by Sachiko’s nonchalance, but Sachiko claims that she has her daughter’s best interests at heart always and suggests that Etsuko will understand when she has a child of her own.  Etsuko is skeptical of Sachiko’s parenting style, but we get only a very brief glimpse of her interaction with Keiko near the end of the novel, and the author describes that incident in an unexpected manner.  In fact, if you’re like me, you’ll reread those couple of pages several times to make sense of them and question exactly what it is that you’ve just read.  This section is one of my two favorites in the book.  The other is also late in the novel, when Etsuko’s father-in-law argues with a younger scholar about Japan’s role in the war.  I don’t know if their opposing views are typical, but in this case and on this topic there seems to be a wide generation gap.  The tone of the novel is somber, and it feels like a translation but isn’t.  The dialog is odd, particularly when Etsuko berates her father-in-law and when characters repeat sentences, perhaps for emphasis.  Savor this tender debut novel by a Nobel prize-winner.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

RED RISING by Pierce Brown

The Harry Potter books seems to have inspired Lev Grossman’s series, The Divergent series, and maybe this one, too.  Red Rising is more sci-fi than fantasy, but the story still takes place at a school for students with exceptional physical and intellectual capabilities, where they are sorted into “houses.”  Darrow is an infiltrator from the Reds, the lowest caste on Mars.  The resistance group known as the Sons of Aries recruits him, after the death of his wife, to undergo some surgical alterations so that he can masquerade as a Gold.  This book follows Darrow through his first year of school at the Institute, and that year basically consists of a battle among all the houses for domination.  It’s not hard to guess who wins, but the storyline is more about the journey—forming alliances, learning what it means to be a leader, and ferreting out the traitors—than it is about the outcome.  This is a very violent story of survival of the fittest—natural selection in a microcosm of the best of the best.  I found the battle tactics and even the battles themselves hard to follow at times, but I don’t think I missed much.  Darrow is an angry young man, raging against an unjust society, and his minions are equally one-dimensional.  This was an enjoyable read but not particularly thought-provoking or particularly satisfying, and I’m not particularly gung-ho about continuing with the series, as I expect it’s more of the same.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

MOTHERING SUNDAY by Graham Swift

It’s 1924 in England, when a maid’s long-term affair with a wealthy young man is certain to end badly.  On the contrary, Jane Fairchild recounts an assignation with Paul Sheringham with a certain fondness that gives us hope for a happy ending, particularly with the Cinderella epigraph and the opening of “Once upon a time.”  We do know that Jane escapes the life of a servant to become a successful writer, with or without her prince, but most of the narrative is about that one day in which she and Paul make love in his home, rather than having to hide out.  It’s a servants’ holiday, and Paul’s parents are meeting Jane’s employers for lunch.  Paul himself has a lunch date with his fiancée but lingers with Jane long enough that it will be impossible for him to arrive on time for that appointment.  Perhaps the most suspenseful aspect of this book, besides the question of whether or not Paul and Jane might somehow end up together, is how Paul’s fiancée will react to her intended’s tardiness.  Jane, meanwhile, after he leaves, has time to observe and appreciate his fine home with no one there to interfere.  However, she sees everything from a maid’s perspective, including the laundering of the soiled sheets, and delights in the fact that the maid will have no idea that Jane was the woman in bed with Paul.  I loved this perspective in which Jane enjoys her anonymity rather than wishing that she could announce her relationship with Paul to the world.  Her secret gives her a sense of power in that she knows some things that others never will, including the fact that her social status is not an indicator of her intellect.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

WISH YOU WERE HERE by Graham Swift

One review called this novel “emotionally gripping.”  I would call it emotionally restrained, to say the least.  The novel is largely about a dairy farming family in England, devastated by the mandated killing of all their perfectly healthy cattle, due to an outbreak of mad-cow disease.  The mother in the family dies young, leaving two sons, Jack and Tom, and their father Michael.  The younger son, Tom, is in many ways the favorite son, but there is no animosity between the two brothers.  After Tom joins the army on his 18th birthday and Michael dies, Jack and his long-time girlfriend Ellie sell the farm and take ownership of a caravan park (like an RV campground) on the Isle of Wight.  I’m not sure what the primary theme is here, but I would guess it’s grief, insufficiently expressed.  Tom’s death is sort of the last straw, as far as Jack is concerned.  Also, this is the second novel I’ve read recently where an ailing dog figures largely in the plot.  This novel is about men, specifically emotionally stifled men, but it’s not the kind of thing I think that most men are likely to read.  Consequently, it leaves this woman reader scratching her head, asking, “What’s it all about?”  Jack is an ordinary guy who has endured tragedy and then basically loses it at the end.  Until that point, for which there is substantial foreshadowing involving a gun, Jack’s inner turmoil is understated.  The finale is indeed gripping, but the lead-up doesn’t really build to a boiling point.  Rather, it just chugs along, and then Jack suddenly becomes someone that we don’t recognize.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

DISGRACE by J.M. Coetzee

David Lurie, a university professor in post-apartheid South Africa, will go to almost any length to satisfy his sexual needs, including the seduction of one of his students.  When she charges him with sexual harassment, he is forced out of his job, partly because he shows no real remorse.  He then moves in with his daughter, a lesbian who lives on a small farm.  A tragic and violent event drives home the vulnerability of women in this society and sheds a different light on David’s role as a predator.  This novel made me uncomfortable, particularly with regard to the role reversal between the blacks and the whites.  The blacks have the power, and the whites now find themselves in a world where they are not the bosses.  David’s daughter is more accepting of the new order of things, particularly the lack of law and order, while her father’s frustration festers.  Their opposing attitudes cause a rift between them, and I have to say that, despite his despicable behavior with regard to women, his point of view seems entirely reasonable with regard to his daughter’s safety.  His daughter becomes depressed but ultimately seems willing to absorb some personal losses in order to maintain her quiet life.  Is she courageous or just plain stubborn?  She basically has three choices:  stand up for her rights, accept the situation as is, or leave.  Standing up for her rights could cost her her life, and I think she feels that the whites deserve the treatment they are getting from the blacks anyway.  Turnabout is fair play.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

REBEL POWERS by Richard Bausch


In many ways, this is a coming-of-age story, as 40-something Thomas reflects on the year he was 17.  Back in 1967, Thomas’s father Daniel, a decorated Vietnam War vet and former POW, finds himself incarcerated again after he is court-martialed for stealing a typewriter and writing bad checks.  During the agonizing trip west to relocate near the prison in Wyoming, Daniel’s wife Connie and their two children, Thomas and Lisa, meet two shady characters, Chummy Terpin and Penny Holt.  These two, whose story sounds like a con, seem to latch onto the family, and one of them resurfaces later in the novel.  Chummy and Penny make the assumption that Daniel is in prison for protesting the war, and although this myth couldn’t be farther from the truth, Connie does nothing to correct it.  I would say that the principal theme in this novel is humiliation.  Daniel obviously cannot rejoin the Air Force on his release and struggles to figure out what kind of life he is going to have and what his role in the family will be.  Connie’s father helps them out financially, but Connie finds his charity to be a necessary evil and a source of further humiliation.  Young daughter Lisa just wants to go home, but for now home is a boarding house, and the entrance to their quarters has no door.  If anyone needs privacy, this family does, but it’s a luxury they simply can’t afford.  The fulcrum that the whole novel teeters on is a conversation in which Thomas overhears his mother express doubts about the future of her marriage.  This uncertainty makes for a very wobbly foundation for Thomas as he crosses the threshold into adulthood, ready or not.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

THE TEA GIRL OF HUMMINGBIRD LANE by Lisa See

The title character is actually the daughter of the protagonist and is alive only because her mother dropped her off at a Social Services center in China.  The unwed mother, Li-Yan, finds herself pregnant at 17, and the baby’s father has disappeared.  In Li-Yan’s culture, illegitimate infants, as well as twins, are put to death.  Li-Yan is a persona-non-grata in in her community and struggles to find a way to survive on her own.  With help from family and friends, she eventually becomes a successful tea guru.  Meanwhile, an American couple adopts the daughter that Li-Yan abandoned and names her Haley.  We follow her story as well, and even though it is not as full of adventure as Li-Yan’s, it is in some ways more compelling.  Haley, along with other Chinese adoptees, suffers from a number of societal issues in that she does not resemble her parents.  Consequently, the fact of her adoption is obvious.  Plus, she is darker and smaller than other Chinese girls in the States, so that she is not entirely accepted by them, either.  In any case, this novel is quite predictable and full of unlikely coincidences, but it’s a pleasant enough read, though certainly not a riveting one.  Again, to me, the discomfort of Asian adoptees in this country was an emotional issue that I had never considered.  That aspect of the book makes it marginally worth reading, but all of the pages dedicated to tea growing, drying, fermenting, etc., were not my cup of…well, you know.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

HERE I AM by Jonathan Safran Foer

Both father and son, Jacob and Sam, are in trouble because of words they’ve written.  Jacob, a TV writer, has been sexting a colleague from work.  When Jacob’s wife Julia discovers the texts on his phone, divorce seems imminent, and Julia becomes involved in a flirtation of her own.  Unfortunately, the couple has three sons, all too smart for their own good, of which Sam is the oldest.  Sam has been accused of writing dirty words during Hebrew school, and his bar mitzvah won’t take place unless he apologizes.  Sam, however, steadfastly declares his innocence.  Jacob believes him, but Julia does not.  The family’s problems are amplified when an earthquake in Israel has catastrophic consequences.  The novel also deals with two ailing characters, the family dog Argus and Jacob’s grandfather Isaac, a Holocaust survivor.  Both are well-loved, and their suffering is heartbreaking and problematic.  One of Jacob’s most upsetting memories is that of his father disposing of a dead squirrel.  This incident has implications for Jacob’s decision regarding Argus, who may or may not be ready for euthanasia.  Isaac’s quality of life is on the decline also, and many of us have grappled with how best to make a loved one’s final years comfortable.  As is the case with Foer’s previous novels, this one is very introspective and also fairly long, so it’s not for everybody.   Jacob, though, demonstrates his power with words in some very snappy and often hilarious dialog.  He is the focal point of this novel—a mostly good man but definitely not heroic.  In other words, he’s very human.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

THE LAST DAYS OF NIGHT by Graham Moore

As historical fiction goes, this feels more historical than fictional, but apparently the author has taken a few liberties with the truth.  In any case, it’s the story of a legal battle between Westinghouse and Edison, and heading Westinghouse’s team is a young, inexperienced attorney named Paul Cravath.  This is largely Paul’s story, with an assortment of better-known characters, including Thomas Edison, who serves as, not just an opponent, but an all-out villain.  Cravath is an obvious underdog to Edison’s Goliath, but he enlists the help of some unlikely accomplices, such as an opera singer and J.P. Morgan.  The battle is for the patent of the light bulb, but a more important issue is the question of whether AC or DC is more desirable.  Edison paints alternating current as dangerous and even pushes for the use of an electric chair using AC as an execution device.  Nikola Tesla is the brains behind a number of inventions of the era and comes across here as someone on the autism spectrum.  This is an educational and entertaining read, never too technical, and not unlike one of Erik Larson’s books of nonfiction.  There’s something here for everybody:  romance, intrigue, suspense, reconciliation—you name it.  I guarantee, though, that you will never think of Thomas Edison in the same way again.  

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

LAST DAYS OF SUMMER by Steve Kluger

While WWII is raging in Europe, Joey Margolis is a 12-year-old Jewish kid in NY whose father is no longer a factor in his life.  Joey begins a letter-writing campaign with Giants third baseman and all-around tough guy Charlie Banks, lobbying for Charlie to hit a home run for him.  Joey feigns an assortment of illnesses, but Charlie sees through his fictional complaints.  Nevertheless, the two find something in each other that inspires them to continue their correspondence.  Joey navigates his way through bullying, adolescent romance, his best friend’s internment, and his bar mitzvah, with badly-spelled guidance from Charlie.  For his part, Joey offers a chance for Charlie to demonstrate what a good man he really is, not only to Joey but also to Hazel MacKay, a Hollywood starlet whom Charlie adores.  Joey is resourceful as he investigates Charlie’s past and uses his ingenuity to get what he wants from almost everybody.  This is the third epistolary novel I’ve read (Vanessa and Her Sister, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society), and I’ve enjoyed all of them.  This one does tail off eventually into sentimentality, but most of the novel is hysterically funny, particularly when Joey and Charlie are discussing politics.  Several other letter-writers get in their two cents, but one of the funniest Joey’s Aunt Carrie.  She’s not a fan of Charlie’s, and neither is Joey’s rabbi, but both of them soften as the novel progresses.  And you’ll never think of Ethel Merman in quite the same way after reading this delightful novel.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

THE AGE OF REINVENTION by Karine Tuil

The beginning of this novel is a little confusing because the two main characters’ names are similar—Samir and Samuel.  There’s a reason for this.  Samir, a Muslim, adopts some of Samuel’s history as his own and even succeeds in passing himself off as a Jew, in order to further his career.  The two men were friends in law school in France, along with Nina, who is adored by both men.  She stays with Samuel, a struggling author, who threatens to kill himself otherwise, while Samir, now known simply as Sam, launches a lucrative law career and marries a very wealthy woman.  Years later, Nina and Samuel reconnect with Samir, who persuades Nina to return to the States with him and become his mistress.  The wild card in all this is Samir’s real family, especially his half-brother Francois, kept secret from his wife, her family, and his colleagues.  Samir has to tread carefully to avoid exposure of his real roots, but nothing in the book prepared me for what happens in the second half.  In fact, the storyline fairly gallops to its conclusion, and I would have given this book five stars if the first half were nearly as riveting.  One other minor quibble I have with this book is that, although the author is a woman, the female characters—Samir’s wife, Samir’s mother, and especially Nina—are given short shrift.  This is basically a story of two men in a rollercoaster of role reversals and rivalry on several levels.  Samir is not the only one who reinvents himself; the same can be said for Francois and Samuel as well.  I’m quite surprised that this novel hasn’t received more attention, particularly given the timeliness of the plot, which loses nothing in the translation.  As for the footnotes, I would recommend that readers ignore them.  I found them to be an attempt at humor by supplying a brief backstory for insignificant characters that really isn’t necessary, given the irony that is already at work here.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

THE WOMEN IN THE CASTLE by Jessica Shattuck

Marianne is a woman of high integrity who expects the same from everyone else in Nazi Germany.  Her husband and Marianne’s longtime friend Connie (a man) are resisters who die in a plot to assassinate Hitler.  Marianne tracks down Benita, Connie’s wife, and their son Martin and brings them to her family’s castle to wait out the aftermath of the war.  Then Ania and her two boys join the household, where Ania brings much-need cooking skills and a practical nature.  Over the course of the next few years, the women grow closer, but Ania and Benita’s secrets that eventually come to light appall the judgmental Marianne, causing rifts that may never be mended.  Benita is beautiful, but we never fully understand, nor does Marianne, what else, if anything, Connie saw in her, because she comes across as shallow.  She is also resentful that Connie died in a plot she was unaware of and didn’t necessarily support.  As for Ania, Marianne would never have taken her in had she known the truth about her past.  The author takes a stab at explaining why Germans were so enthralled with Hitler, particularly before he began systematically exterminating Jews.  As with so many books of this sort, the ending entails a reunion of sorts.  I’ve seen reviews that likened this book to Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale, and, although I was not overly impressed by either book, at least the writing here is much better.  The sentences are not so stubby, but the characters don’t really come to life.  Marianne and Benita are one-dimensional.  Ania is a more complicated character, but her role in the novel trails off at the end.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

THE SYMPATHIZER by Viet Thanh Nguyen

We meet our first-person unnamed narrator, half French and half Vietnamese, educated in the U.S., as he and the South Vietnamese general he works for are preparing to exit Saigon at the last possible moment after the war.  Their hair-raising escape is the first of several tragic adventures in this novel.  Our narrator is a double-agent, providing information to his communist contact in the North.  We follow the narrator to southern California, where a number of Vietnamese refugees settle into low-paying jobs.  He then travels to the Philippines as a consultant for a movie about the war, which has some similarities to Apocalypse Now.  I found this to be the least compelling section of the book, not to mention a little unnecessary, except to reinforce how clueless we Americans were about the people we were supposedly fighting for.  When other reviewers have found this book “darkly comic,” perhaps they are referring to this section, but nothing about his book struck me as funny in the least.  Finally, the narrator becomes part of a group who is training for a return to Vietnam to resume the fight against the Communist regime, while he is still an undercover agent.  I did not love this book, but I did admire it.  The perspective is fresh, but the plot is very, very dark, in some ways like the novel Unbroken.  The narrator is a blend of nationalities and divided loyalties where the divided country that is Vietnam is concerned.  As a child he swore allegiance to two friends who happen to be on opposite sides of the conflict.  Some of the things that the narrator has to do to maintain his cover in the USA are horrifying and made me think of the TV show “The Americans.”  These acts haunt the narrator, but they have the desired effect in that he ultimately gets what he wants in return.  The price, though, is staggering.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

THE KEEP by Jennifer Egan

The bulk of this novel is actually the text of a prison inmate’s writing assignment.  The novel within a novel is the story of Danny, a ne’er-do-well who travels to Europe to work for his cousin Howie.  The trip has redemptive purposes on several levels.  When Danny and Howie were kids, Danny and another boy abandoned Howie in a cave.  Howie, now Howard as an adult, has purchased a medieval castle that he plans to renovate into a sort of Zen hotel.  Danny, ever on edge for fear that Howie will seek some kind of payback, explores the castle grounds, including “the keep,” which is home to an elderly baroness.  He gets into a few scrapes but gains favor with Howie when he frequently turns up with useful intel.  Danny’s story is creepy and maybe a borderline fantasy, but it’s certainly no worse than our prisoner’s cellmate’s radio for contacting the dead.  The prisoner, author of Danny’s story, is Ray, who has a crush on the writing teacher, Holly.   Honestly, this book didn’t hold my attention very well, until Ray’s connection to his writing assignment is revealed.  We also finally get Holly’s backstory as well, and the plot steamrolls to a very satisfying ending.  This book is not something I would generally recommend, because it’s a bit weird, but Jennifer Egan’s work is often a little strange, and yet it feels very current.  This book came out in 2006, but one of Danny’s hangups is that being without his cellphone is highly unpleasant and launches him into a panic.  Eleven years later his technology addiction doesn’t sound weird at all.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

THE INVISIBLE CIRCUS by Jennifer Egan

In 1978 Phoebe is 18, has just graduated from high school, and lives with her mother.  She has been accepted to Berkeley, but when she blurts out to an old acquaintance of her sister Faith’s that she’s going to Europe instead, she decides to do just that.  Phoebe is still reeling from Faith’s apparent suicide in Italy and embarks on a quest to retrace Faith’s travels, in an effort to, well, we’re not sure what.  Connect with Faith’s spirit?  Confirm that her death was a suicide?  Phoebe’s impulsiveness puts her in some dangerous situations along the way, but a fortuitous encounter in Munich enables her to get answers to a lot of her questions.  One problem with the book is that Phoebe is not a likable character, and Faith, a 60s revolutionary wannabe, whom we get to know entirely through flashbacks, is even worse. Faith was always her father’s favorite, performing daredevil stunts to impress him and posing for endless portraits.  Unfortunately, the girls’ father died of leukemia at a fairly young age, enduring an unfulfilling career as an engineer at IBM.  Neither girl seems to have any sense of responsibility to their poor mother who loses a husband, then a daughter, before the second daughter abruptly takes off.  Phoebe’s sudden departure seems to be partly in response to the revelation that her mother is now sleeping with her sleazy boss, but that’s a poor excuse for childish behavior.  Despite the myriad flaws of the characters, I found the book to be a somewhat captivating adventure story, as I followed Phoebe on her solitary journey, hoping that she would get her act together sooner or later.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

THE EMPEROR OF OCEAN PARK by Stephen L. Carter

This novel was published in 2002, but it’s about a Supreme Court nominee named Garland who is not confirmed.  How weird is that?  In this case, Judge Garland has just died of an apparent heart attack but has left a trail of loose ends for his daughter and two sons to tie up.  The youngest son and narrator is Talcott, a law professor at a fictional Ivy League university, whose wife Kimmer is up for seat on the federal Court of Appeals.  This novel may be approaching 700 pages, but not one of them is dull.  The Garland family happens to be black, or, in the author’s words, members of the darker nation, as opposed to the paler nation.  There is enough intrigue, politics, and corruption to fill several Grisham novels, but the real mystery revolves around a chess puzzle.  You don’t have to be a chess player to follow the plot, but you do have to keep up with quite a few characters, including Talcott’s law school colleagues and students, his extended family and friends, and several shady characters, some of whom may also be colleagues, students, family, or friends.  From the day of the Judge’s burial forward, people have been asking Talcott about his father’s “arrangements,” and they obviously don’t mean funeral or financial arrangements.  Thus begins Talcott’s quest to find these arrangements, apparently documents, before he loses his job or his wife or both or worse.  I thoroughly enjoyed rummaging around in the closet of skeletons of the Garland family.  This novel is suspenseful and well-written with just the right amount of social commentary.  I didn’t even object to the sprinkling of religion, especially when the author claims that Satan is clever but not intelligent.  I could apply that assessment to one or two powerful humans as well. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

OUR SOULS AT NIGHT by Kent Haruf

Addie is a 70-year-old widow who decides to pay a visit to her neighbor, Louis, whose wife is deceased.  Addie proposes that Louis consider spending the night at her house, not for sex, but for company and conversation.   Thus begins a deep friendship that enhances both of their lives, but it is not without complications.  Some of their family and neighbors frown on their relationship for reasons that I cannot fathom.  Addie’s grandson comes to live with her temporarily after his parents separate, and Louis steps in to perform duties neglected by the boy’s father, such as teaching him to play ball and getting him a dog for a companion.  Neither Addie nor Louis had ideal marriages, and both made some serious mistakes.  Their budding relationship feels like a chance to do things right and enjoy their twilight years.  The dialog is pitch perfect, and Addie and Louis are so authentic in their awkwardness and grace.  The first three quarters of this very short novel are just delightful, but as is often the case in real life, those who are not happy want everyone else to share in their misery.  In this situation I’m not sure if we have just a case of misery loves company or if the motive is really some sort of belated retaliation.  Regardless of what the author intended, I hated the ending, which totally overshadowed all the beauty of the previous pages.  I don’t like feeling angry after reading a book, but this book just made my blood boil.  Call me crazy, but I found the outcome to be a little like the movie La La Land, in which the characters have to make difficult choices between two seemingly incompatible options.  Maybe I just want to have my cake and eat it, too, but sometimes I think we give up too easily on managing to do both. 

Sunday, July 23, 2017

PLAINSONG by Kent Haruf

This is one of those novels about a small town, in the vein of Jan Karon or Adriana Trigiani, but oh so much better.  We have a pregnant teenager whose mother has tossed her out of the house, a high school bully, two teachers trying to do the right thing, and two sets of brothers who don’t talk much.  One set of brothers is a pair of aging bachelors who raise cattle and take in the pregnant girl, at the request of teacher Maggie Jones, whose elderly father is too demented to be in the same house as the teenager.  The other brothers, age 9 and 10, are the sons of another teacher, Tom Guthrie, whose wife is depressed and soon moves out.  So we have two basically motherless boys, and two kindly men who have now gained sort of a daughter.  Both sets of brothers are naïve in their own ways, especially in matters related to women, sometimes resulting in some very funny interactions.  The adage that it takes a village to raise a child is very evident here, and sometimes makeshift families of thrown together strangers work out exceedingly well.  The book is not sugary sweet, as all of the characters make their fair share of mistakes, and there are a couple of nasty villains.  To say that this is a satisfying read is an understatement.  The only downside is the lack of complete closure at the end, but there are two sequels.  Sign me up!

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

LAROSE by Louise Erdrich

When Landreaux Iron accidentally shoots and kills a neighbor’s 5-year-old son, he gives his own son, LaRose, to the bereaved family.  This action may seem extreme, but from the Native American perspective of the Iron family, it’s the right thing to do.  Now both families are grieving the loss of a son, and LaRose himself is devastated as the innocent pawn in these tragic circumstances.  At first I felt that nothing good could come of his arrangement.  However, Nola Ravich, the dead boy’s mother, eventually embraces LaRose as her own, often at the expense of her difficult daughter, Maggie.  LaRose is the hinge that joins the two families together and comes to serve as almost a guardian angel.  This role is a pretty tall order for such a young boy, but he is obviously far from ordinary.  The book also has a couple of side stories, including sparse snippets from about four generations ago that really did not hold my attention very well.  More compelling is the story of Romeo, who attended boarding school with Landreaux as a child and whose son Hollis is now being raised as a member of Landreaux’s family—another boy whose father has given him away, if you will.  The beginning of this novel is intense, and the last quarter of the book is very satisfying.  However, the middle part drags, as the struggles of the Iron and Ravich families intensify, until two big events occur—one involving Romeo and his plan for revenge and one involving parents misbehaving at a high school volleyball match.  The book also has some occasional elements of magical realism, accentuating the Native American beliefs, but somehow seeming a little superfluous rather than applicable to the plot or the character development.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

TALES OF BURNING LOVE by Louise Erdrich

It’s overly long, but I enjoyed this novel immensely.  Jack Mauser has had 5 wives, 4 of whom are still living.  When these women convene at his funeral, they find something to like in each other and have a chance to tell their stories when they become stranded in a car in a snowstorm.  Also in the car is a well-disguised hitchhiker whose identity remains a mystery while each woman is telling her tale and clearing the tailpipe so that they can turn on the heat now and then.  Eleanor is quite possibly Jack’s best match, but she’s a college professor with a propensity for affairs with students.  Candice is a dentist who wants to raise Jack’s infant son, borne by wild child Marlis.  Finally, there’s Dot, who keeps the books for Jack’s construction company and is still married to and in love with a man serving prison time when she marries Jack.  She may be a bigamist, but she is the most in the dark about Jack’s past.  All four are colorful and fascinating and sometimes manipulative, especially Marlis, so that in some ways Jack is the victim of some very imaginative women, not to mention his own impetuosity.  This novel may be about the women, but Jack himself is the character who binds them all together.  He’s dashing and charming and good-hearted but drinks too much and isn’t ever faithful to the wife of the moment.  Some of the occurrences in the novel are a bit preposterous, but I don’t mind a bit of levity to lighten up dire circumstances, and this novel has both a raging fire and a raging blizzard.  During the latter, some serious female bonding is offset by a bit of righteous indignation that’s both funny and horrifying at the same time.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

THE RACE FOR PARIS by Meg Waite Clayton

The race in question is the race to report the liberation of Paris at the end of WWII.  Jane, the narrator, writes for the Nashville Banner, and Liv is a talented Associated Press photographer.  Female journalists were generally forbidden from war zones at that time, but Liv is determined to capture shots from the front.  She persuades Jane to join her on this dangerous gambit, and Fletcher, a British military photographer and friend of Liv’s husband, takes them under his wing.  Unfortunately, his protection has its limits, and the girls find themselves in trenches and dodging bullets, while existing on K-rations and chocolate.  Although this sounds like a treacherous adventure, the action does not exactly leap off the page, and neither do the characters.  Liv is an intrepid risk-taker, haunted by rumors of her husband’s infidelity back in the States.  Jane has a thing for Fletcher, but he has eyes only for Liv.  Jane struggles with jealousy but never divulges enough of herself to show us someone for whom Fletcher could forsake Liv or his absent fiancée.  Jane also has a bit of a chip on her shoulder, because she’s never known her father and her mother is a maid.  She should stand even taller than her affluent comrades, given how far she’s come, but instead she seems to defer to Liv on almost every decision about their journey.  She becomes both Liv’s and Fletcher’s confidante while subordinating her own preferences.  Jane respects and admires Liv and Fletcher, but I never had the sense that they reciprocated.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

THE GIRL BEFORE by JP Delaney

Edward Monkford is a minimalist architect and is very picky about the people who occupy his homes.  The book itself is pretty minimalist in that there are basically just three other characters.  Simon and his girlfriend Emma move into One Folgate Place after Emma has been robbed at gunpoint.  In fact, the safety of the home with all kinds of electronic controls is one of its most appealing factors.  Not so appealing is how clutter-free Monkford expects the occupants to live.   Simon and Emma’s story alternates with that of Jane, who occupies the same house at a later time and who also has survived a traumatic event—a stillborn child.  The storyline is really pretty straightforward, except that Emma and Jane both become Edward’s lover and bear a striking resemblance to his deceased wife.  Consequently, I found that I had to do a certain amount of mental resetting each time the narrator changed, although we find that the two characters have less and less in common as the story progresses.  Monkford is too obvious as a sinister presence throughout the novel, but Jane and Emma are full of surprises.  I also enjoyed the nifty way in which the author gives us back-to-back chapters in which the two women are having very similar experiences, particularly with Monkford.  Jane has the benefit of knowing that Emma preceded her in the house and as Monkford’s lover, but she doesn’t appear to be any more savvy.  If you don’t like the characters, keep reading, because new revelations keep surfacing and changing your perception of them.  This is not the first novel in which a character has probed into the life of the previous occupant of her home, but it may be one of the more engaging ones.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

MOLOKA'I by Alan Brennert

It’s the late 1800s, and leprosy is indeed a curse, with a devasting effect on many Hawaiians.   When a 5-year-old girl named Rachel contracts the disease, she is first isolated in a Honolulu hospital but later dispatched to a leper colony on the island of Moloka’i.  Although her uncle is also there, she is forced to reside in a convent with a number of other afflicted girls.  This is a heartbreaking story of a beautiful girl who is separated from her family at a young age.  Her father, a seaman, comes to visit occasionally, but Rachel longs for her mother and siblings.  Not only is she denied a normal childhood, but the leper colony falls way behind the Western world in terms of creature comforts, like running water and electricity.  Overall, the book is very sad, with very few bright moments, but it is not weepy.  Rachel’s spirit is indomitable for the most part, but tragedy seems to be lurking around every corner.  The author does a great job of giving the reader a real sense of the community and how it serves as both home and prison for its residents.  Exile to Moloka’i is basically a life sentence, and residents who do obtain a “parole” after having tested negative for leprosy for a prescribed length of time sometimes choose not to leave.  Families have abandoned them as pariahs, so that cured individuals have nowhere else to go.  The only other disease I can think of that has caused this type of quarantine is tuberculosis, and TB at that time didn’t have nearly the stigma that leprosy did.  Rachel earns our admiration and our compassion as she treads a path that most of us cannot imagine.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

BIG LITTLE LIES by Liane Moriarty

The subject matter runs the gamut from bullying to domestic violence, but the writing style is breezy and gossipy so that I never found the storyline to be maudlin.  Instead, I just wanted to know what happened on the school trivia night.  The author drops hints that someone dies, and we have to keep reading to find out who and why.  Madeline, Celeste, and Jane all have small children in the same beach community school.  Madeline is vain and shallow but still likeable, and Celeste is strikingly beautiful.  Together they take newcomer Jane, a single mom in her early 20s, under their wing.  When Jane’s son Ziggy is accused of hitting and biting another child, the moms all take sides, with Madeline and Celeste solidly in Jane and Ziggy’s court.  As the book progresses, we learn the circumstances of Ziggy’s birth and whether he’s really a closet bully or not.  In fact, no loose ends remain at the end of the novel, but I was still a little disappointed to have to say goodbye to these three women.  We readers are privy to all of their secrets, even if they don’t always share them with each other.  The big shocker comes during trivia night, and I did not see it coming.  The bottom line is that outsiders don’t really know what goes on inside of a marriage, and the married partners themselves may be oblivious to the impact their behavior is having on the children.  The author handles these weighty issues deftly and gives us a charming take on the ties that bind women together.  Certain aspects of the book seem very true to life, and some do not, but the whole package is a rollicking good read.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

THE CARTOGRAPHER OF NO MAN'S LAND by P.S. Duffy

I am amazed that this book was written by a woman.  At least half of it takes place on the battlefield in France during WWI, and it is so realistic that I definitely felt as though she had first-hand experience in the trenches.  The main character is Angus, a Nova Scotian whose father is adamantly against the war.  However, Angus’s good friend Ebbin, who also happens to be Angus’s wife’s brother, is at the front and may be missing.  Angus expects to join the war effort as a cartographer so that he can find out what has happened to Ebbin, but, due to an overabundance of cartographers, he finds himself in the infantry and eventually becomes an officer.  Back home, the story revolves around Angus’s young son, Simon Peter, who idolizes a teacher from Germany who comes under suspicion of the locals.  This book is exceedingly dreary and just did not hold my attention very well.  I kept waiting for something positive to happen, but whenever it did, my joy was short-lived.  The chapters that take place in Nova Scotia are largely devoted to descriptions of boats, and I am not much of a maritime person.  Apparently the author does have first-hand sailing experience, and the Nova Scotia sections ring true in that regard, but we landlubbers don’t get much respite from the horrors of war while reading about boat dimensions.  Also, maybe I just wasn’t a very astute reader, but I felt that the author introduced characters without any explanation of who they were or what their relationship was to the main characters.  I do like to figure out some things for myself, but in this case I often wondered if I had missed something.  All in all, I am obviously not the intended audience for this book.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS by Michel Faber

This is definitely a book of strange new things, but its title is the name that an alien culture gives to the Bible.  By alien culture I mean the native inhabitants of another planet.  Pastor Peter Leigh is a reformed drug addict and alcoholic that has been chosen as a missionary to these people who resemble humans in many ways.  He leaves his beloved wife Bea behind in England but finds that his new post is really quite cushy in that his new congregation is thrilled by his arrival.  Ironically, the world he left behind is in turmoil, and Bea is basically coming apart at the seams, not to mention losing her faith.  To me, this upside-down contrast is the heart of the novel.  Peter is thriving, except that he tends to neglect his own health, while Bea, now pregnant with his child, sends him a frantic deluge of messages about how the infrastructure on Earth is collapsing.  Peter, of course, cannot really comfort her from millions of miles away, with only the written word at his disposal, and he’s much more adept at speaking than writing.  This book completely transported me to this puzzling frontier, where everyone is surviving mainly on a plant dubbed whiteflower that can be made to taste like just about any food.  The natives grow it in abundance, basically feeding themselves and the earthlings living on their planet.  In return, the humans provide the natives with pharmaceuticals:  antibiotics, pain-killers, etc.  It’s a wary and uncomfortable relationship but vital, particularly to the resident earthlings.  We learn gradually, as Peter does, what happened to his predecessor and so much more.  This is not really science fiction, and I wonder if some of its inspiration came from Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow.   In any case, this is a voyage you’ll want to take.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE by Michel Faber

This was not a book that beckoned me to reopen it, but each time I did, I was content to linger there for a while.  Faber spins a story that is part Cinderella, part Pretty Woman, about a young woman named Sugar in the 1870s whose mother forced her into prostitution.  Sugar, however, besides being popular for never saying no, has a prodigious intellect and is surprisingly well-read.  Her life changes radically when she meets customer William Rackham, indolent heir to a perfume business.  William has a wife named Agnes who seems to be sickly but is mostly just exceedingly naïve about her bodily functions.  The couple have a young daughter Sophie whose presence goes from non-existent to noteworthy as the novel progresses.  At almost 900 pages, one might expect a huge number of characters for the weary reader to keep tabs on, but actually there are only about a dozen, and you’ll get to know them all exceedingly well.  This is not a broad epic, and I liked the intimacy of it.  It takes place just over the course of a year or two and gives us a vivid glimpse of the times, as well as an in-depth look at the Rackham household.  If the graphic sex at the beginning of the novel turns you off, be patient.  The book becomes more and more personal with each page turned, as we get to know Sugar, who is the heart and soul of the novel.  This is her story, and you’ll be cheering for her as she negotiates the tricky path from trollop to respectability.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

THE OUTSIDERS by S.E.Hinton

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of this book.  The main character, 14-year-old Ponyboy, is one of the “greasers,” along with his two brothers, Darry and Sodapop.  Their parents died in a car crash, and Darry and Sodapop are both working to support the three boys and keep them out of foster care.  As greasers, their main form of entertainment is fighting with the Socs (Socials)-- the affluent kids who wear nice clothes and drive fancy cars.  The greasers, as you might imagine, are tough and scrappy, and some of their home lives make Ponyboy’s look like a picnic.  The youngest and smallest of the greasers is Johnny Cade, who recently got roughed up by some Socs, so that now he is nervous and wary.  This book invites some obvious comparisons to Grease and West Side Story, but those stories weren’t written by a 16-year-old girl.  The target audience is definitely young adult, although I don’t know if publishers even had such a category in 1967.  Does it read like it was written by a 16-year-old?  Yes, but that’s what makes it so authentic.  And this is more than just a coming-of-age novel; to me, it’s about loyalty.  The greasers are a tight-knit group and its members will endanger their own welfare in order to help each other out of a jam.  Revenge is another theme—perhaps not as noble but certainly just as realistic and just as powerful a motivator. 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES by Stef Penney

In Canada in the 1860s, the Hudson Bay Company rules.  The fur trade is dwindling, but the murder of fur trader Laurent Jammet near the town of Caulfield gets the Company’s attention.  They send in three men:   the surly Mackinley, the greenhorn Donald Moody, and a native-American guide.  An inscrutable teenager, Francis Ross, has gone missing around the time of the murder and becomes a prime suspect.  Then two more men appear on the scene:  Thomas Sturrock and William Parker.  Both men were acquainted with the deceased, and Sturrock knows that he had a relic that could be quite valuable.  Sturrock is well-known in Caulfield, as he was hired to search for two girls who went missing and were never found.  Soon the Company men set out on a cold, snowy trek to find Francis Ross, followed a few days later by Parker and Francis’s mother.  In fact, almost every character becomes part of an expedition at one time or another, to or from Caulfield or a Norwegian settlement or a Company outpost.  More nasty characters turn up, but everyone has a different agenda and personal reasons for getting to the bottom of the Jammet murder.  This book has it all—adventure, suspense, and multi-layered characters, especially Mrs. Ross, the first-person narrator.  She will go to any length to disprove her son’s involvement in the murder, but first she has to find him.  She has a painful history herself, and her husband does not seem to share her certainty about Francis’s innocence.  The writing style somehow reflects the bleakness of the landscape and conveys so perfectly the terror and hardship that each of these journeys entails.  I needed an antidote for the unabsorbing stuff I’ve been reading lately, and this book did the trick.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

CLEOPATRA: A LIFE by Stacy Schiff

Cleopatra may have been colorful and engaging, but this book is not.  I appreciate that historical sources are slim to none, but I think that the biography of a woman who reigned over a flourishing Egypt and seduced both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony would be a little more lively.  Instead, I found this book to be crushingly dull.  The accounts of battles and murders just run together after a while, and it doesn’t help that the names are confusing and sometimes similar; I had particular difficulty with Arsinoe (Cleopatra’s sister) and Auletes (her father).  On the plus side, I learned a few things.  For example, Mauritania is now Algeria.  Also, the city of Alexandria in Cleopatra’s day was incredibly beautiful, cultured, and modern compared to Rome.  Cleopatra was very well educated, spoke nine or more languages, and charmed the Romans with her intellect more so than her questionable beauty.  Unless I dozed through that section, however, the author never mentions who the three triumvirs were.  (Actually, there was a first and second triumvirate, but I was mainly interested in the second, made up of Octavian, Mark Antony, and Lepidus.)  Since so little of Cleopatra’s life is documented, we can’t know if her missteps were inspired by love and loyalty or if she just miscalculated.  Certainly she was not a military strategist.  One particular episode in the book did not ring true to me.  The author claims that at one point Cleopatra wins over Mark Antony’s continued affection by crying and staging a hunger strike.  Really?  Since when have tears and histrionics ever swayed a man to a woman’s favor?

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders

I did not like the format of this novel at all.  I read several chapters before I realized that the dialog was taking place between dead people in a Washington, D.C., cemetery—Oak Hill, to be exact.  Interspersed among these conversations are excerpts from real and fake and sometimes radically conflicting historical documents recounting the days surrounding the death of Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie.  Willie, too has joined the wakeful dead, clinging to earth in a sort of a waystation before being spirited away to his appointed afterlife.   Willie’s mightily grieving father makes several visits to Willie’s coffin, known by the cemetery denizens as a sick-box, as they are all somewhat in denial of their own deaths.   Another annoying feature of this book is that the speaker’s identity always follows his monologue, which may be rather long, causing the reader to have to guess which dead person is speaking.  In some cases, I could make a reasonable assumption based on the speaker’s manner of speaking or choice of words, but not usually, and I think I would have preferred to have read this book on paper rather than in electronic form.  All that aside, this novel may revolve around Willie and his tormented father, but the backstories of the other characters are in some ways more human, particularly with regard to what might have been, especially in the case of Mr. Bevins and Mr. Vollman.  The author gives both men a “future story” that is beautiful but sad because it was unfulfilled and at the same time perhaps comforting to the two men as a sort of preview of the afterlife.   If all this sounds a little maudlin, take heart.  The not-necessarily-historical documents can’t agree on the weather, much less render a consistent opinion on whether Lincoln was handsome or exceedingly homely.  Alternative facts, anyone?

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

EXIT WEST by Mohsin Hamid

Saeed and Nadia are young adults who fall in love in an unnamed city in an unnamed war-torn country.  When the violence claims the life of a loved one, they decide to flee through one of the “doors” to a less volatile country.  They travel to Mykonos, then London, then California in an effort to establish a new life but are always perceived as an inconvenient nuisance to the “native” population of their new homeland.  This novel offers an allegorical look at the refugee crisis in the world today and also a sidelong glance at the effects of climate change.  Unfortunately for our two characters, as their lives become a little less dismal and precarious, their love for one another starts to wane.  Consequently, they have to face the awkwardness of de-coupling after they’ve endured so much hardship and turmoil together.  Adversity magnifies their personality differences, as it causes Saeed to turn to his religious roots and seek out fellow countrymen, while Nadia branches out and embraces her independent spirit.  In any case, they are not dreamers seeking a better life.  They are productive people who have left behind jobs, property, and loved ones just to survive.  I did not love this novel as much as The Reluctant Fundamentalist, but I still enjoyed the author’s writing style and his treatment of some sticky current issues.  The poignancy of Saeed and Nadia’s inability to forge a sense of belonging in a foreign land is, for me, the point of the story.  The erosion of their sense of belonging to each other is sad, too, but also implies hope for a new beginning.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

BEFORE THE FALL by Noah Hawley

I don’t read a lot of thrillers, but I love to read a really good one, and this is a really good one.  A private jet crashes with a couple of billionaires on board, plus their wives, two children, the crew, a bodyguard, and an artist who may finally be hitting his stride.  The artist, Scott Burroughs, is a casual friend of Maggie Bateman, whose husband David, an executive for a conservative news network, has arranged the private jet.  Maggie has invited Scott and another couple, Ben and Sarah Kipling, to join them on a short flight from Martha’s Vineyard to New York. Ben, unbeknownst to Maggie at the time, is about to be indicted for laundering money from hostile foreign entities.  The plane crashes 18 minutes after takeoff, and Scott, an excellent swimmer inspired by Jack LaLanne’s swimming feats, survives the crash and manages to get himself and 4-year-old JJ to shore through sheer force of will.  Now he’s being pursued by the media, the members of which have differing opinions as to whether he’s a hero or somehow responsible for the crash.  Fueling the furor is the fact that his most recent paintings all depict epic disasters.  The format of this novel has its pluses and minuses.  The author presents each passenger’s backstory in separate chapters, interleaved with the aftermath story, focused primarily on Scott.  Some backstories are most interesting than others, but I get that the author wants to give equal weight to each passenger so that we readers can draw our own conclusion as to what caused the plane to go down.  The post-crash story, though, is what really drives the page-turning.  We want to know what the NTSB is going to find on the bottom of the ocean and what’s on the data recorder, but I also was eager to know what lies in store for Scott, who is savvy in some ways and naïve in others.  He seems to be the kind of person who expects the best from people but discovers that there are some unscrupulous people who see a conspiracy around every corner and want to recast the victims as perpetrators.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

A SERVANT'S TALE by Paula Fox

Luisa’s mother is a maid on a sugar plantation on a Caribbean island, and I had at first assumed that she was the servant in the title.  Luisa’s father, however, is the son of the plantation owner.  The father uproots the family and relocates them to New York, where they get by as best they can.  They are actually American citizens, thanks to Luisa’s grandfather, but Luisa ops to drop out of school at 15 to become a maid herself, much to the disappointment of her friends and this reader.  I understand where she’s coming from, though.  Her only real exposure to a better life is in the homes of her customers, and she can’t fathom reaching that kind of prosperity herself.  Another fallacy in her thinking is her fantasy that her island home is just the way she left it, and she harbors a constant determination to go back, perhaps even permanently.  In any case, the novel follows Luisa through an eclectic series of customers, who are all unique and sometimes compassionate but sometimes not.  One particular betrayal by a client drives a wedge between Luisa and a loved one but spurs her to action to break the unfulfilling pattern of her life.  Up until this point, I would venture that she has been living vicariously through her customers, and I think she’s overdue for realizing that she, too, can lead a rich life, with or without riches.  Paula Fox’s recent death prompted me to read this book, and now I wonder how typical it is of her overall body of work.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

ORHAN'S INHERITANCE by Aline Ohanesian

This book opens with the reading of Kemal’s will, and, as you might expect, there’s a mysterious recipient—Seda Melkonian.  Neither Kemal’s son Mustafa nor his grandson Orhan knows who Seda is, but she has inherited the family home.  Also, Orhan has inherited the family business, which, under Turkish law, rightfully belongs to his father.  Orhan travels to an Armenian nursing home in California to persuade Seda to sell the family home back to him.  We discover that Orhan is essentially oblivious to the Armenian genocide that took place in Turkey during WWI.  Seda’s story of survival and of her relationship with Kemal occupies the majority of the pages in the book.  There’s very little that’s surprising in the plot, and the genocide coverage is mostly limited to the experiences of Seda’s family.  Still, the story is moving and well told, and Orhan knows from his own experience what it’s like to be persecuted without cause.  Orhan may be the title character, but he’s not the primary character by a longshot.  That distinction belongs to Seda.  Her supporting characters are Kemal and Fatma, an elderly family member whose role in the family history becomes known late in the novel.  The story is tragic, but the author maintains a clear-eyed tone that educates the reader, as Seda educates Orhan, about events that are not widely known.   I have not read it, but Chris Bohjalian’s The Sandcastle Girls also addresses this forgotten piece of history.  Sometimes fiction has just as much, or more, power to enlighten us as nonfiction.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

NUTSHELL by Ian McEwan

Only Ian McEwan could write a novel whose first-person narrator hasn’t been born yet—or named, for that matter.  In fact, I’m not sure that his parents know that their unborn child is a boy.  From inside Trudy’s womb, our narrator, who speaks like an erudite adult, is the proverbial fly on the wall who witnesses the hatching of a murder plot.  Yep, it sounds like Hamlet, because Claude is Trudy’s lover, and he is the brother of estranged husband John, the intended victim.  Trudy and Claude are bumbling, would-be murderers, and, as best I could tell, they don’t really even have a strong motive.  Anyway, the novelty of having an in-utero narrator is very appealing; he’s listening at the keyhole of every conversation between the two conspirators and trying to decipher how this scheme is going to work out for him.  Claude and Trudy plan to put him up for adoption, and the baby expresses a clear preference for staying with his mother, despite her obvious lack of a moral compass and complete disregard for the health of the fetus; she drinks like a fish, and the poor kid can barely keep his wits about him, especially since he’s now positioned upside down.  Plus, living in another household might be far preferable to being born and raised in prison.  This book is very clever, with a cheeky baby spouting forth opinions on everything from wine to preferred foreign refuges for fleeing felons, with or without extradition agreements.  And Ian McEwan’s prose and dialog never disappoints:  “What’s said hangs in the air, like a Beijing smog.”

Sunday, March 26, 2017

THE CEMENT GARDEN by Ian McEwan

Four young siblings—two boys and two girls—left to their own devices are definitely a recipe for disaster.  One of the fondest memories of Jack, the narrator, is of an afternoon when their parents left them unsupervised to go to a funeral.  The kids had a blast!  Then their father dies, and their mother becomes ill.  The children play doctor and engage in other questionable activities (Jack stops bathing), which become even more frequent and more warped after their mother passes away.  The kids make the decision not to tell the authorities, for fear that the family will be broken up.  They are no longer reveling in their freedom, but neither are they showing any level of newfound maturity.  Julie is the de facto leader of the bunch, since she is the oldest, but she certainly does not rise to the occasion.  Reviews have compared this book to Lord of the Flies, but this novel about children running amok is shocking in a completely different way.  A High Wind in Jamaica also comes to mind, but this book is disturbing without being violent or even scary.  Published in 1978, it’s very edgy even by today’s standards, and I dashed through it, desperate to know the fate of these rudderless youngsters.  McEwan never shies away from a topic just because it is uncomfortable, and this book will definitely make you squirm.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

HARMONY by Carolyn Parkhurst

Alexandra Hammond is a frazzled mother, more frazzled than most because her elder daughter, Tilly, is on the autism spectrum.  The younger daughter, Iris, is the main narrator, recounting the family’s life at Camp Harmony, a camp for families with difficult children.  The Hammonds take a leap of faith, joining two other families who are also at their wits’ end, as camp residents, performing chores and helping the director, Scott Bean, run the camp.  Scott is a self-proclaimed expert on managing children like Lilly, and he’s not half-bad at it, until things at the camp start to unravel.  The irony of it all is that the kids he’s trying to help are the biggest obstacles to the camp’s success.  They make decisions that are ill-advised at best, but, under the circumstances, their choices, mostly pranks, have devastating consequences.  In some ways, Scott may seem to be selling snake oil, convincing sane people to abandon everything for a life in the woods.  However, we all know what it feels like to be desperate for someone or something to solve a seemingly insurmountable problem.  Tilly has been expelled from every school she’s ever attended, including those for special-needs kids.  Alexandra finally resorts to home-schooling, but Tilly is more than just a handful; she’s a danger to herself.   And that brings me to my only real beef with this story:  why do these difficult children spend so much time unsupervised at camp?  Tilly in particular is devious but probably doesn’t understand what that means, and Iris is only 11.  Tilly is obviously not capable of looking out for Iris, and Iris is too young to be much of a rational influence on Tilly.  In fact, Iris goes along with some of Tilly’s bad ideas, even aiding and abetting at times.  To me, both girls were mean and selfish.  Fortunately for them, their parents are very loving and forgiving.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

HIDDEN FIGURES by Margot Lee Shetterly

Virginia is a Southern state that fought integration to the point of closing schools after Brown v. Board of Education.  And yet, many talented African-Americans found work as scientists and engineers at Langley Research Center, which later became part of NASA, as early as the 1940s.  The federal government recruited black female mathematicians to work as human computers while there was a shortage of available men during WWII.  By now everyone knows about the movie that this book inspired, and I’m looking forward to seeing it.  The book addresses civil rights and segregated bathrooms and even a little civil disobedience regarding a cafeteria sign instructing black employees where to sit.  The author does a very thorough job here, recounting numerous events in the lives of several women, both inside and outside the workplace, but I had some difficulty keeping up with who was working in what department.  I found many of the personal stories fascinating, especially the achievement of Mary Jackson’s son as a soapbox derby participant, John Glenn’s faith in Katherine Johnson’s work, and Dorothy Vaughan’s willingness to work away from her husband and children for a year.  Also, I have a technical background, so that I know what double integrals and differential equations are, and I admire these women tremendously for their scientific accomplishments, as well as their courage and success as pioneers in breaking down gender and race barriers.  However, I found this book to be quite dry.  I am not a big non-fiction reader, although I have enjoyed works by Michael Lewis, Jon Krakauer, Erik Larson, Laura Hillenbrand, and Malcolm Gladwell.   The writing is very clear and informative, but this book does not read like a novel.  In fact, as one friend noted, it reads like a dissertation that has been reworked for publication.  Nonetheless, it is a story that needs to be told, and kudos to Ms. Shetterly for bringing these women’s lives to our attention. 

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead

Prepare to be horrified while reading this book, but then slavery WAS horrifying.  Cora is a young slave on a Georgia plantation and is still angry at her mother for running off when Cora was 10.  When another slave urges Cora to join him in an escape attempt, she finally agrees.  She suffers mightily while on the run and even catches herself wishing she were back on the plantation from time to time.  Although the Underground Railroad was not literally a system of trains running in dark tunnels underneath the earth, that’s exactly what it is in this book.  The trains don’t have set schedules, and the passengers don’t necessarily know where they’re headed.  Cora finds that she can never become complacent, because peace and safety are always short-lived, since she is, and always will be, a runaway.  This era reminds me so much of the Holocaust, where the runaway and the persons trying to hide the runaway are all punished, often by a grisly death, when a hideout is discovered.  I particularly liked how the author supplied the backstory for other characters, even after we knew they had met some terrible fate.  Cora’s mother’s story is particularly surprising.  If you’re looking for a book about redemption or even one with happy endings for everybody, this is not the book for you.  The evil characters in the book are not going to suddenly become abolitionists.  Instead they keep popping up, relentlessly bent on destroying the black population or collecting a reward, more and more venomous each time we encounter them.  There are some good people in the book, including a few whites who are sympathetic to the slaves’ cause.  For Cora to survive, she will require a lot of luck, particularly with regard to timing and to the people she meets, and a lot of courage.  She certainly has the latter, but her luck waxes and wanes as she tries to negotiate the minefield that the South was during this period.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

SAG HARBOR by Colson Whitehead

Benji, or “Ben” as he would like his friends to call him now, spends all of his childhood summers at Sag Harbor.  What’s interesting about this coming-of-age novel is that Benji and all of his cronies are black, although I found that fact easy to forget.  His insecurities, embarrassments, and self-criticisms are universal as he navigates the road to adulthood during the 1980s while reminiscing about the past.  His nostalgia trip has its ups and downs, including a BB gun incident reminiscent of the movie A Christmas Story.  His is not an idyllic life, however, despite his family’s education and affluence.  His parents’ bickering sometimes escalates to fighting, exacerbated by alcohol.  Benji is close to his younger brother Reggie, but his older sister has bolted at the first opportunity, and their parents seem to be about as warm as icebergs.  In fact, the parents frequently allow the kids to fend more themselves at the beach house, neglecting to pay the electric bill or water bill.  Benji gets a job at an ice cream parlor in order to buy food, and Reggie goes to work at Burger King, mostly to have a refuge from his father, when their parents actually show up.  Obviously, Benji’s hardships are not that serious, and the book recounts several incidents that are quite funny.  My favorite is when Benji discovers his fifth grade school photos and rants about how bad his haircut is.  He laments that the doorman, the bus driver, the school security guard, or his homeroom teacher should have intervened.  “The pane of photos was uncut, of course.  Who’d want a picture of that in their wallet, poisoning their money?”  Actually, I think the real reason the photos were uncut is that his parents were too self-absorbed to consider carrying photos of their children in their wallets, much less notice their son’s hair.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

THE CIRCLE by Dave Eggers

The Circle is a California tech company that is taking the world by storm, and Mae wants to work there.  She lands a job in the Customer Experience department, thanks to a plug from her college roommate Annie, who is an up-and-comer there.  Mae is unbelievably efficient, achieving all of the company’s goals for social media interaction and customer satisfaction.  A mistake that Mae fears will cost her her job actually segues into an opportunity for heightened visibility at the company.  One of the Circle’s goals is for everyone on the planet, starting with politicians, to become totally transparent, i.e., wearing a camera so that everything they do is viewable by everyone else.  Privacy and classified information are no longer valued, except by a few, such as Mae’s parents and ex-boyfriend, whose email addresses Mae shares with the world, much to their chagrin.  Mae drinks the Kool-Aid to the point that she lives at the company and basically has only her on-again, off-again boyfriend Francis and Annie for friends.  But who needs friends when you have millions of people watching your every move?  Eggers has stretched the influence of social media here to its maximum, giving us a totalitarian world of information overload.  It is not appealing, but the reader can understand how Mae gets so caught up in a world that seems, on the surface, like a utopia—no more crime, no more disease epidemics, full voter participation.  She doesn’t miss what she’s lost because she can’t identify it.  This Orwellian story is also reminiscent of the TV show Max Headroom, in which the television was the all-powerful tracker of everyone’s activities.  Let’s hope we don’t ever “complete the circle.”