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.”

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

THE DARK TOWER I: THE GUNSLINGER by Stephen King

I don’t know what possessed me to read two fantasies in a row.  I know that The Dark Tower movie is slated to come out this summer, but I’m stopping with Book I in this series.  The gunslinger, whose name is Roland, is on a quest to find the Dark Tower (purpose:  unknown) with an intermediate encounter with the “man in black.” I thought at first that the “man in black” was Death or the devil, who has the power of resurrection, but Roland is no saint himself.  Other than Roland’s wiping out a town, nothing much happens.  A boy named Jake becomes Roland’s sidekick for part of the journey, and he seems to provide some sort of conscience, but that’s about it.  After I read the book, I went back and read the introduction and found that Stephen King wrote this book in 1970.  The author himself proclaims this book to be pretentious and demonstrating the influence of an abundance of writers’ workshops.  Is this book supposed to be about a post-apocalyptic future or perhaps an alternate universe?  Again, King gives us a few hints but not a lot else to go on, and I’m thinking the desert in question is the Mohave, and the big chasm is the Grand Canyon.  Anyway, why does Jake seem to be more informed about the past than Roland, when Jake is so much younger?  I suppose these unanswered questions have inspired other readers to continue with the series.  I know this series was inspired by the Child Rowland fairy tale, alluded to in Shakespeare’s King Lear and then immortalized in Robert Browning’s poem, but this book does not stand on its own merits, without its possibly more meaty sequels.  I can also see Tolkien’s influence, but then I struggled to get through The Lord of the Rings trilogy as well.  The movies were marvelous, though, and I hope the same will be true of the film version of The Dark Tower.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

THE MAGICIANS by Lev Grossman

If Harry Potter and friends were a little too squeaky clean for you, this book might be just the ticket, especially if you love fantasy novels in general.  Quentin Coldwater unexpectedly finds himself at Brakebills College, which, like Hogwarts, is a school of magic for those with magical gifts.  Unlike Hogwarts, there’s a whole lot of drinking going on and a decent amount of sex.  Quentin is a melancholy teenager with a bit of attitude and an obsession with a children’s book series about an alternate universe called Fillory—clearly akin to Narnia.  This novel has some high-flying moments, both literally and figuratively, but Grossman is no Rowling.  I found the Harry Potter books to be entertaining, suspenseful and very clever, whereas this is more about agonizing over how to have a fulfilling life when you can conjure up anything you want.  For me, the kids are definitely more compelling characters while in school and still learning the extents to which they can manipulate the universe than after they become adults with too much time on their hands.  There has to be a quest, and there is…of sorts—after graduation.  However, it’s more of an exploration and ultimately a dangerous adventure.  Although a specific goal does emerge, it gets tangled up with a spate of strange creatures that don’t seem to have any real purpose other than to instigate mayhem.  This novel was just not my thing, so I won’t be investing any time in the sequels or the TV series.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE by Diane Ackerman

Amid all the horrors of WWII, heroes and heroines did rise to save as many Jews as they could.  In this case, the Zabinskis—Antonina and Jan—are Warsaw zookeepers who refuse to give up.  Serving as a waystation en route to more permanent refuges, they gladly provide temporary shelter to hundreds of Jews.  They manage to save not just people but also art, animals, and a massive, meticulously compiled insect collection.  The author culls Antonina’s diaries to deliver an in-depth history of the impact of the war on the residents and structures of Warsaw.  The residents include both the human and animal varieties, and both suffer upheaval and countless loss of life.  Almost everyone who lodges in the Zabinskis’ villa at one time or another survives the war, but the animals are not so fortunate.  Ackerman minces no words in her descriptions of the brutalities and senseless killings that Warsaw suffers at the hands of the Germans.  The animals steal the show in this novel, providing both occasional humor as well as heartbreaking poignancy, as the family chooses some unusual species as pets.  On the whole, the book is very readable and historically enlightening but a little distant as far as the humans are concerned.  Even the horrific scene where Antonina believes that her son has been shot is not as moving as I would expect it to be.  In other words, the author recounts events without speculating on the associated emotional responses.  I enjoy reading nonfiction books that read like novels, but this is not one of them.  It reads like history, and I am not a history buff.  That’s not to say that this isn’t a story that needs to be told.  It is, but the telling of it may be more vivid in the movie.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

THE NIX by Nathan Hill

Faye abandoned her husband Henry and 11-year-old son Samuel and 20 years later is arrested for tossing a handful of gravel at a right-wing politician.  Samuel is now a disenchanted college professor who spends all of his free time playing video games.  Having squandered his advance for a book deal, he now needs to start writing in earnest or earn megabucks in Jakarta as a teacher, as advised by his publisher.  His mother’s attorney wants him to write a letter attesting to Faye’s good character, but his publisher wants him to write a scathing tell-all about Faye’s radical past, of which Samuel has no knowledge whatsoever.  The novel tells the story of both mother and son with extensive flashbacks to Faye’s brief stint in college in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention and associated protests.  The 1968 passages are action-packed, but the 21st century stuff not so much.  In fact, an entire rambling one-sentence chapter is devoted to the musings of another video game addict, and I did not get the purpose of including him in the book at all, which is way too long anyway.  On the plus side, the writing is wonderful but a little pretentious, especially in the aforementioned chapter.  The most entertaining character in the book is Laura Pottsdam, a student who Samuel loves to hate, because she cuts class and plagiarizes a writing assignment.  Her rationalization of how she has cheated her way through her entire education and then her doubt about her ability to succeed in a glamorous marketing job after college are priceless.  Then when a character from Faye’s wild and crazy past is identified in Samuel’s present, I had to applaud the beauty of the irony.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

THE GIRL WHO CAME HOME by Hazel Gaynor

A group of folks from Ireland set out for a better life in America—on the Titanic.  Seventeen-year-old Maggie seems to be the only one not really excited about going, and that’s because she’s leaving behind the man she loves.  Now that her mother has died, though, she must accompany her aunt back to the U.S.  We know that Maggie survives, because 70-odd years later, she is the great-grandmother of Grace, who has given up college to take care of her ill and grieving mother.  Grace, too, left a boyfriend behind, as well as an opportunity to submit a feature story to the Chicago Tribune.    Maggie encourages Grace to resume her college career, reconnect with her boyfriend, and write Maggie’s story.  I sort of liked this novel, but I found it hard to separate it from the movie.  I was glad, though, that the book did not dwell on the disaster itself, because certainly I saw enough of that in the movie.  I also did not feel that this novel tugged at my heartstrings, as the victims are not very robust characters.  An unexpected twist at the end was gratifying, and the prose is smooth but not noteworthy.  I discovered at the end that true events, besides just the sinking of the ship, inspired this book.  I think this novel works as a tribute but not necessarily as an absorbing read.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR by Paul Kalanithi

I generally steer clear of memoirs, particularly about death.  However, this book has garnered so much press that I felt obligated to read it.  A friend passed it along, and I was happy to see that it was very small.  Paul Kalanithi learns, before he finishes his residency in neurosurgery at Stanford, that he has terminal cancer.  He accepts his fate with grace but also a sense of urgency, because there is so much that he wants to accomplish.  This book, though, is not just about his approach to his own death, but, more importantly, I think, it is about his approach to the mortality of his patients.  Paul is intrigued by the whole idea of the mind as a product of the brain, where the mind embodies all those traits and emotions that we regard as human:  hope, love, courage, ambition.  I know that the role reversal of patient and doctor is supposedly a central theme of this book, but I didn’t really see it that way.  Paul very much participates in his own treatment, without browbeating his oncologist, but he researches his diagnosis thoroughly enough to have a peer-to-peer conversation with her.  My favorite part of the book is probably his widow’s epilogue, in which she gives us details that Paul chose not to share.  I’m glad I read this book, if only to find out what all the fuss was about, but I had a rather lukewarm reaction to it.  I love that this book is his legacy, particularly for his family, and that, through this book, his influence is far-reaching.  However, I think the lives he improved and saved with his scalpel and his compassion in a short period of time are his most important legacy.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

COMMONWEALTH by Ann Patchett

Haven’t you always wondered what your life would look like as a movie?  The two families in this novel get to experience just that after Franny makes the mistake of telling her lover, a well-known author, the story of her stepbrother’s death.  A bestseller is born and eventually a movie.  Actually, everything begins at Franny’s christening, when a party-crashing assistant DA falls for Franny’s mother.  The ensuing divorces and marriage result in a blended family with six children--Franny, her sister, and their four stepsiblings.  We get to know all of these people as adults, but I had some difficulty keeping straight who were the offspring of which divorced couple, probably because there were two daughters in both families.  Maybe the names could have been a little less generic than Franny, Caroline, Holly, and Jeannette.  Only Albie, the only boy to survive to adulthood, has a standout personality as a child, and not just because he’s the only boy.  He’s a troublemaker of the first order, who becomes even less manageable after the two traumatic events of his life—his parents’ divorce and his brother’s death.  The timeline in this book is not strictly sequential, allowing the author to save the most important detail—how one of the six children dies—until very late in the book.  For me, this tidbit was what I kept reading to find out.  Not that I minded spending time with these characters.   As adults, they blossom from four virtually indistinguishable girls into four very unique and strong women.  I leave Albie’s fate for you to find out.  This book may not be as exotic as State of Wonder or Bel Canto, but it’s still a pleasurable read. 

Sunday, January 8, 2017

THE PATRON SAINT OF LIARS by Ann Patchett

Rose is a young woman in the 1960s who does not love her husband and abandons him abruptly when she discovers that she’s pregnant.  She does seem to love her mother, however, but leaves both her husband and her mother in California for a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Habit, Kentucky.  She never divulges to the sisters there the fact that she is not, in fact, unwed.  She bonds with Sister Evangeline, who runs the kitchen, and Rose soon finds that she has a knack for cooking.  The striking thing about this home is that, of course, all of the occupants and their babies depart within nine months.  However, Sister Evangeline can discern certain things about unborn babies and predicts that Rose will not, in fact, give hers up for adoption.  Rose remains an enigma throughout the novel, never softening and rarely divulging even the tiniest scraps of information about her former life in California.  She lets down her guard only when she’s in a car.  I’m not sure I understand what the author was getting at here.  Does Rose only open up when she’s in motion?  Is that when she feels relaxed or confident or comfortable or what?  I so love this author’s other work, especially Taft and State of Wonder, but I did not love this book, which was Patchett’s first novel.  My biggest beef with it is that the pace was much too slow.  Plus, Rose was so inscrutable, and I never figured out why she so selfishly walked out on people who loved her, leaving sad and puzzled souls in her wake, although she may have just been incapable of loving anyone in return.  And the ending was a major disappointment for me.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

THE COFFEE TRADER by David Liss

Miguel Lienzo is a handsome Jewish commodities trader in Amsterdam in the 1600s, having fled Portugal during the Inquisition.  Who knew there was a stock exchange back then?  Miguel is now living on the edge, having lost everything and then some in the sugar trade.  Living with his brother and his brother’s beautiful wife, Miguel cooks up a scheme with a mysterious widow, Geertruid, to recover and surpass his previous fortune.  The big questions are whether or not Miguel’s plan for manipulating the price of coffee will work and whether his partners are trustworthy.  Constantly fending off his creditors, he never seems to become frantic, despite consuming excessive amounts of coffee, being hounded by a destitute and disgruntled client, and managing not to cross the Ma’amad--a Jewish Council that prohibits doing business with gentiles.  Meanwhile, he may be falling in love with his brother’s wife, who doesn’t realize that the coffee beans have to be brewed.  She eats the berries raw.  Whoa!  That’s hardcore.  There are a few twists and turns, especially at the end, and even some suspense, but, although Miguel may be full of coffee-induced energy, the pace of the novel is agonizingly slow.  This book was not my cup of tea, perhaps because I’m not a coffee drinker.  Maybe some caffeine would have helped me plow through it with more enthusiasm.