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.