Sunday, July 29, 2018


Alice Hoffman’s magical realism novels never disappoint, if you’re looking for a breath of optimism.  All generations of women in the Sparrow family are born in March, starting with Rebecca in the 1600s.  Each woman discovers that she has a superpower on her thirteenth birthday.  Stella is no exception when she discovers that she can see how people will die.  This ability has its plusses and minuses.  Her mother Jenny can experience other people’s dreams, and that power led her to her charismatic but basically worthless husband Will, whom she is finally divorcing.  Jenny has had no contact with her own mother, Elinor, since she ran off with Will at the age of seventeen, but now she must send Stella to live with Elinor to escape the chaos surrounding Will’s arrest for murder.  Elinor’s gift is that she can tell when someone is lying, and she knows that Will does so habitually.  This is a fast and easy read with everything wrapped up in a tidy fashion at the end, and a month from now I won’t remember the plot at all.  Still, I enjoyed the break from heavier stuff.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018


The title of this novel is an intentional misnomer.  Plus, the main character’s daughter Merry is anything but.  In fact, she’s the reason that Seymour “The Swede” Levov’s life is not the pastoral existence he has strived for.  The Swede is an extraordinary high school athlete who later marries Miss New Jersey and takes over the reins of his father’s leather glove manufacturing business.  His near-perfect life in the late 1960s is shattered when Merry as a teenager becomes an activist against the Vietnam War and purportedly bombs the local general store, killing a well-loved physician.  Merry then goes underground, and the Swede’s only link to her is a mysterious young woman named Rita Cohen.  As the novel progresses, the Swede gains more and more disturbing information about Merry and the bombing, but I didn’t think the ending brought sufficient closure.  Other than that, this was a compelling novel about a family trying to come to terms with their child having done the unthinkable.  The Swede does a lot of ruminating on what may have driven Merry to violence, and I think Roth gets carried away at times.  I love his character treatment, but his verbosity gets to me when he’s describing flowers and countryside, for example.  Some reviewers have complained about the bleakness of this novel, but I felt that the happy ending, so to speak, is really at the beginning when the Swede is waxing poetic about his sons from his second marriage.  Knowing how his life turns out kept me from getting totally depressed while reading this book, and I think Roth wisely gives the reader the good news first.

Sunday, July 22, 2018


Philip Roth’s novels are hit or miss, and this one is a definite miss for me.  His great American novel is about the great American pastime—baseball.  Although I watch a lot of baseball, this book did not resonate with me at all.  It’s more of a satire than an homage, and the LOL moments are too few and far between.  It’s the story of a fictional third league, the Patriot League, which includes a team of misfits known as the Ruppert Mundys.  The Mundys are obliged to play all of their games away during the 1943 season, because the War Department has commandeered their ballpark.  The disadvantage of never having a home game is compounded by the fact that two of the team’s players are missing limbs, along with one too old to stay awake for nine innings, and one outfielder who frequently concusses himself by running into the wall.  Their star player is playing for free on the worst team in the league, because his father desperately wants to curb his son’s arrogance with a generous dose of humility.  Political correctness does not live here, as the author skewers everyone, regardless of religion, political leaning, gender, or disability.  I realize that it’s intended as a farce and not something you’re really going to sink your teeth into, but the whole thing is just too ridiculous and unpleasant.  I think this book would have been more entertaining if there were an underdog worth cheering on, but instead we just have a lot of losers, in more ways than one.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

BACK TO BLOOD by Tom Wolfe

If this final novel of Tom Wolfe’s had held my attention just a little more tightly, I would have given it five stars.  The setting is Miami, with its mélange of ethnicities.  The main character, Nestor Comache, is of Cuban heritage, but we also have a well-to-do Haitian family and several Russians of questionable moral fiber.  Nestor is a cop who is called upon to rescue a Cuban refugee from the top of a yacht’s mast, but his amazing feat brings him only disdain from his family, because the refugee will now probably be deported.  His beautiful but shallow girlfriend Magdalena dumps him, not because of the rescue but because she is now involved with her boss, a sleazy psychiatrist who treats porn addicts and aspires to the life of the rich and famous.  Next, Nestor alienates the black community after subduing a drug dealer and being caught on video shouting some racially charged verbal abuse.  During that encounter, he meets Ghislaine, the daughter of a Haitian college professor, and she is concerned about her brother’s possible gang affiliation and the fate of a teacher who has been arrested for attacking a belligerent student.  Wolfe handles these multiple interwoven storylines and perspectives seamlessly and without a confusing and meandering timeline that seems to be so popular with today’s novelists.  Wolfe wrote only four novels, and, although I liked all of them, this is my favorite.  Nestor is a heroic character who epitomizes the saying that no good deed goes unpunished.  He may be a little vain and naïve, but he has nothing but the best intentions, and he’s a pretty sharp cookie, too, albeit with a weakness for damsels in distress.

Sunday, July 15, 2018


They say that if you can remember the 60s, then you weren’t really there.  I’m a bit younger than the people in this book, and I wasn’t in California in the 60s, where most of the action takes place.  The main character and leader of the pack is Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion.  I loved both of Kesey’s acclaimed novels, both of which were made into movies, and generally I like Tom Wolfe.  However, this is sort of a loose biography of Kesey’s LSD experimentation period, and I wasn’t that fond of it.  One of the main characters is actually the bus, named Furthur (intentionally misspelled), which makes a cross-country trip, helmed by Neal Cassady, the real-life Dean Moriarty from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, as well as a sojourn into Mexico, when Kesey is on the run from the authorities.  The phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” came along after this period, but in some ways it applies here as well.  Kesey has sort of a cult following that drinks LSD-laced Kool-Aid at one of their soirees, but so do some unsuspecting guests.  Of course, if you’re going to a Pranksters party and don’t expect LSD to be floating around, then you must have been totally out of touch and you wouldn’t have been at the party in the first place.  Apparently, Kesey was a very charismatic man, but his charm did not come through on the page for me.  I did find it fascinating how these great writers found each other:  Kesey, Wolfe, Larry McMurtry, and others.  Wolfe mentions Kerouac only in connection with Cassady, and although I didn’t love this book, Wolfe is a way better writer than Kerouac, in my opinion, and Wolfe steers clear of language that would make the book feel dated.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

THE SILENT SISTER by Diane Chamberlain

Riley, now in her twenties, was two years old when her sister Lisa, a 17-year-old violin prodigy with a very promising future, apparently committed suicide.  Riley’s mother never really recovered from the loss of her daughter and predeceased Riley’s father, who has just died.   Spending the summer going through all the stuff in the house where she grew up, Riley uncovers some surprising facts about her family and what may have prompted Lisa to take her own life.  New mysteries keep cropping up, as Riley tries to connect with her brother Danny, who suffers from PTSD and harbors ill feelings toward all of their family members who are no longer alive.  Their father owned an RV park, and left his pipe collection to a married couple, Verniece and Tom Kyle, in residence there, who may be able to help unravel some of the family mysteries, if Riley can bear Tom’s puzzling animosity.  Riley’s shifting reality makes her somewhat impulsive and not always rational, but Danny is even less rational, and I never really did figure out why he was so angry with their parents.  For me, he was the most difficult character to relate to.  If anything, the truth about what happened with Lisa should have made him irate, whereas Lisa’s apparent suicide should have made him sympathetic toward his parents.  I think this novel works better as a dysfunctional family saga than as a mystery, as I found some of the twists and turns to be not wholly unexpected.  I enjoyed the book, but there was nothing particularly special about it.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

EVENTIDE by Kent Haruf

I was afraid that this sequel to Plainsong would not live up to the standard set by its predecessor, but it absolutely does.  Cattle ranchers Raymond and Harold are back, and their ward, Victoria, is off to college with her young daughter Katie.  The two men have to adapt to having only one another’s company again, and then tragedy strikes.  In another household we have Luther and Betty and their two children, living in a trailer on welfare.  Betty’s Uncle Hoyt comes to live with them, and he is very bad news, but Luther and Betty are too terrified of him to turn him out.  Mary Wells has turned to drinking since her husband abandoned her and their two daughters.  You get the picture.  Social worker Rose Tyler seems to be the most stable person in this Colorado town, but even she occasionally loses her composure, especially when well-meaning but inadequate parents can’t take care of themselves, much less protect their children.  The tone and dialog in Haruf’s novels is so pitch-perfect that I just want to immerse myself in these people’s lives as long as possible, even when things are going badly for them.  Haruf has set a high bar for the third book in the series, Benediction, and I already have it on my bookshelf.  He treats his characters with such tenderness that I find it difficult to blame them for occasionally wallowing in their despair.  If I had a complaint about this novel, and I really don’t, it’s that everyone seems to be a victim of some sort of heartbreak, but the beauty of the novel is how most of them manage to overcome it and perhaps even provide solace to those who are still suffering.