Wednesday, November 28, 2018

MOONGLOW by Michael Chabon

I wish I knew which parts of this novel were fact and which were fiction.  Chabon tells his grandfather’s life story as a novel, and if it were all true, his grandfather led quite a life, as did the grandmother, who hosted a late night horror TV show, made up similarly to Elvira.  First of all, Chabon’s grandfather is not a blood relative, as his grandfather was not Chabon’s mother’s biological father.  Chabon’s grandmother escaped from France during WWII along with her young daughter—Chabon’s mother.  She then married the man we come to know as Chabon’s grandfather.  She probably suffered some sort of PTSD and probably had a mental illness, as she spent quite a bit of time in a mental institution.  The grandfather served over a year in prison for assaulting his boss, and the timeframe for these two separations from society coincided, so that Chabon’s mother had to be farmed out to Uncle Ray—a pool shark and former rabbi.  The grandfather definitely lived a fascinating life, including two oddball quests—one to capture German rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun and one to capture a python.  I have to say that the backstory on Von Braun was disturbing and left me feeling conflicted about the space program in general.  A good book does that, though.  It makes the reader reevaluate beliefs by seeing things from a different perspective or, as in this case, by learning that one’s beliefs are not necessarily based on fact.  And, yes, you can glean some little-known facts from a work of fiction.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

AUTUMN by Ali Smith

Elisabeth is a child when she meets her elderly neighbor Daniel Gluck.  He has written myriad song lyrics and introduces Elisabeth to art by describing paintings.  They become close friends, despite their age difference.  Fast forward 25 or so years, and Daniel is almost comatose in a hospital bed.  Elisabeth reads at his side and reflects on her childhood with Daniel as sort of a life guide.  This is a strange book, and it did not appeal to me at all.  There is no plot whatsoever, and Daniel is the only character who is really developed, and even his portrait has major gaps.  He admired a little known artist named Pauline Boty, and I did not follow her story at all.  This book is largely about art, and it’s just way too artsy for me.  There are lots of references to trees and leaves, and they must have some connection to the title, but that connection escapes me.  At 102 years old, Daniel is well past the autumn of his life, so that metaphor doesn’t work, either.  One humorous and/or frustrating incident, or actually a series of incidents, is Elisabeth’s effort to get her expired passport renewed.  The clerks at the post office are hell-bent on finding something wrong with her photo each time she attempts to apply.  This recurring problem, plus the inordinate wait time involved, is funny, while at the same time a little too familiar in its bureaucratic nonsense.  The fact that she manages to circumvent this obstacle is cause for celebration, but it’s not enough to carry this novel.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

SAINTS FOR ALL OCCASIONS by J. Courtney Sullivan

This is one of those books which leaves a lot of questions unanswered.  That didn’t bother me too much, because it is certainly more about the journey than the destination.  The journey is a sweeping family saga of two Irish sisters, Nora and Theresa.  Nora is engaged to Charlie, who moves to the U.S. when his brother inherits the family farm.  Nora and Theresa follow, as Nora, the dutiful older sister, is engaged to Charlie, whom she does not love.  Theresa is more adventurous and somewhat frivolous but eventually becomes a cloistered nun in Vermont.  Nora and Charlie raise four children, and the book opens with the death of Patrick, the oldest.  I liked this novel with all the family interactions and especially the mountain of family secrets, but, other than Theresa’s sudden decision to become a nun, not too much happens.  In fact, some of the secrets remain secrets—some to the reader and some to the family members.  What’s the point of a secret if we don’t get to witness the shock value when they’re revealed?  After much backtracking, the family finally gathers for Patrick’s funeral near the end of the novel.  For me, this is where things finally started to get interesting.  I have to ask, though, if almost all men of Irish descent have a drinking problem.  So it would appear from much of the fiction about Irish immigrants.  I mostly enjoyed this novel, but I don’t think it broke any new ground.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

THE ENGAGEMENTS by J. Courtney Sullivan

Frances Gerety, working as a copywriter for the Ayers ad agency in the 1940s, came up with the grammatically incorrect slogan “A Diamond Is Forever” and helped initiate the perception that every bride must have a diamond ring.  Gerety, however, was a career woman who never married and found it challenging just to join a country club without a husband.  In this novel she is a pioneer and a procrastinator who does her best work under pressure, and her story is interwoven with the stories of several fictional brides in different time slices.  Evelyn is mournfully preparing lunch for her 40-something son who has abandoned his wife and children.  Delphine has left her husband in France for an American violin virtuoso.  James is a paramedic, working on Christmas Eve and struggling to make ends meet.  Kate and her partner Dan have never married, but their daughter will be serving as flower girl for her cousin’s gay marriage.  All of the stories are nice but certainly not gripping.  They do have a thread that links them together loosely, and most of them also involve parental disapproval of a child’s chosen spouse.  The biggest source of anxiety in any of them, though, is Kate’s misplacement of one of the groom’s rings.  This novel really just doesn’t have a plot.  Cohesive it is not.  Yes, the characters are believable and sympathetic but not particularly compelling.  Also, it is not exactly a ringing (pun intended) endorsement of marriage or of having children who may ultimately break your heart.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

MAINE by J. Courtney Sullivan

Alice Kelleher is the elderly matriarch of the Kelleher family and owns a beach house in Maine.  She has made arrangements to donate the property to the local Catholic church in an effort to assuage guilt that has basically dominated her entire adult life.  Maggie, Alice’s granddaughter, is scheduled to come to the beach house with her boyfriend Gabe for the month of June.  However, Maggie and Gabe have had another of their frequent fights and seem to have broken up for good.  Maggie is pregnant with Gabe’s child but hasn’t told him or anyone else.  Maggie’s mother Kathleen now lives in California and raises worms to produce fertilizer.  Alice’s son’s wife Ann Marie appears to be sort of a goodie-two-shoes homemaker, but she sheds that image soon enough.  These four women all converge on the beach house at the same time, and the barbs start to fly.  Where there’s a dysfunctional family, there’s usually some trait or event that feeds the dysfunction, and in this case it’s alcoholism.  Kathleen is now sober, but Alice has decided to go off the wagon now that her husband has passed away.  Maggie is mysteriously abstaining because of her secret pregnancy, and Ann Marie makes an embarrassing and potentially damaging mistake while under the influence, although she does not have a history of alcoholism.  All of these women do have their faults.  Ann Marie likes to have people in her debt.  Alice is unforgiving, even to herself.  Kathleen seems to have her act together but she can be downright mean, especially to Ann Marie.  And Maggie, a writer, who seems to be the central character, is just too vanilla and has horrible taste in men.  I view this author as the antithesis of Philip Roth, who writes exclusively about men.  In this book, the noteworthy characters are all women, and they all have very distinct personalities.  And just when you think you have them all figured out, particularly Kathleen and Ann Marie, they do something completely unexpected.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

SOMETIMES I LIE by Alice Feeney

With a title like this, we at least know to expect the narrator to be unreliable, especially since she is in a coma for most of the novel.  Amber Reynolds can hear everything that is happening in her hospital room but cannot respond.  She hears her husband Paul, her sister Claire, her parents, and the assorted medical staff.  She also flashes back to a few days before her accident, and her ruminations are interspersed with childhood diary entries.  The closer we get to the ending, the more convoluted and confusing the story becomes, especially with regard to who did what.  The author cunningly leads us down the wrong path, although I have to say that it’s a path that a wary reader could have avoided.  All I can say is that if you take everything at face value, you will be deceived, but having been duped just made the twist that much more delicious for me.  Is Amber as naughty as she appears to be?  If so, why does her husband seem to be trying to protect her?  Some aspects of what really happens are hard to wrap your mind around, after having been led so far astray, but these twists are what make the book special.  Certainly the plot is outrageous and unbelievable, but this book is tops in the mindless psychological thriller department.  Actually, it’s not all that mindless, as some reviewers have complained that they didn’t understand what happened.  I will say that an artifact inexplicably turns up at the very end, and I didn’t get that at all, but I think the author was just trying to throw us one last curve.  A re-reading may be in order.