Wednesday, December 25, 2019

TRUST EXERCISE by Susan Choi

The third and final section of this book baffled me so much that I had to call into question everything that I had read before that.  Suffice it to say that the first section is not what it seems, and this novel brings the concept of an unreliable narrator to a whole new height.  The first section’s narrative follows Sarah, a theatre major at a performing arts high school, but her acting chops are such that she performs backstage tasks during all of the school’s performances.  Her failed romance with fellow student David catches the attention of Mr. Kingsley, the magnetic theatre instructor, who begins pairing the two up for trust exercises, bringing both of them to a new level of uncomfortable awkwardness in each other’s company.  Then a visiting troupe of English actors arrives to perform a production of Candide, and their relationships with the students become the focal point of the story.  The second section takes place fifteen years later and involves many of the same characters—sort of.  Reading this book is definitely a trust exercise in and of itself, as nothing in the novel, except perhaps the final section, can be taken at face value.  I found this level of unreliable narration both intriguing and frustrating at the same time.   I’m really sorry that my book club isn’t reading it, because it definitely lends itself to a rousing discussion and possibly some conclusions that I may have overlooked as possibilities.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

A LESSON BEFORE DYING by Ernest J. Gaines

A young black man, Jefferson, was with two other young black men when they murdered a white storekeeper.  Everyone at the scene except Jefferson died in the ensuing gunfire.  He then goes to trial for murder, but the trial is a sham, and his attorney argues that there is no point in sentencing Jefferson to death, as he is basically a fool and an animal.  The all-white jury, of course, returns a verdict of first-degree murder in short order, and the judge sentences Jefferson to the electric chair.  Jefferson, however, is not the main character.  That role belongs to Grant Wiggins, a college-educated black schoolteacher, whose aunt and Jefferson’s godmother persuade him to counsel Jefferson.  Basically, Grant must attempt to bring Jefferson into a state of dignity and manhood before the execution.  In some ways, this seems to be not just a lost cause but an almost futile exercise.  Grant resents being placed in such an impossible position, now that Jefferson has become convinced that he is less than human, but this task is actually a redemptive opportunity for Grant.  He doesn’t feel that he is making a difference in the lives of the children he teaches, and he still has to enter through the back door of a white man’s house.  Furthermore, although a church serves as his schoolhouse, he is not a religious man.  His argument with the local pastor over the fate of Jefferson’s soul and the existence of heaven is one of my favorite sections.  My interpretation may be not what the author intended, but the pastor seems to imply that the idea of heaven is to comfort and ease the grief of loved ones left on earth, with the promise of meeting the deceased in the afterlife.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING by Delia Owens

Everyone else on the planet seems to love this book, but I feel like I’m being generous to give it 4 stars.  I just didn’t think it was special enough to warrant all the praise that others have lavished on it, and I felt as though I were reading a novel for young adults.  In any case, the book opens with the discovery of a dead body--that of Chase Andrews, who may or may not have been murdered.  Then we backtrack several decades to the life of Kya, a girl who basically raises herself in the swamplands of North Carolina.  She then later falls in love with Chase, but their relationship is doomed, as there is no chance that the “Marsh Girl” will ever get to marry Chase, the former star quarterback who can have any respectable girl he wants.  The plot is supremely predictable, including the ending, in which we finally discover what actually happened to Chase.  Frankly, he is such an odious, one-dimensional character that I really wasn’t exactly dying to know who had the biggest motive to kill him or if his death was an accident.  I had several theories about what happened to him, and one of them was right.  The number of characters is refreshingly small, and my favorites were a black man nicknamed Jumpin’, who owns a small store and serves as sort of a surrogate father to Kya, and Tate, who becomes Kya’s tutor and first boyfriend.  Tate bows out of the picture for a while, leaving Kya to become involved with the despicable Chase.  I just didn’t warm up to Kya, who makes some other rather bad choices, such as hiding from truant officers to avoid going to school.  She seems to crave interaction with other people and yet chooses isolation.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

PURITY by Jonathan Franzen

I wavered between four and five stars in my opinion of this book.  On the one hand, it was overly long, but, on the other hand, I loved the way everything came together in the end.  The lives of the three main characters—Pip Tyler, Andreas Wolf, and Tom Aberant--are very intertwined, and, little by little, Franzen clues us in as to how their lives happen to intersect.  In other words, the plot unspools perfectly, in my opinion.  Andreas Wolf is a charismatic uncoverer of truths, a la Julian Assange, and has a dark secret that he shares with both Tom and Pip.  Pip is a twenty-something in a dead-end job with crushing student loan debts, but her main goal in life is to find out who her father is.  She doesn’t even know her mother’s real name, as her mother completely changed her identity around the time Pip was born in order to ensure that Pip’s father never discovered his daughter’s existence.  In fact, mothers figure largely in this book, as Andreas and Tom also have moms who become characters in their own right in this novel.   I found Tom to be the most enigmatic and least developed of the three main characters, perhaps because he seems the most normal, ironically, despite bearing a last name that seems to be a misspelling of “aberrant.”   His girlfriend Leila has her own chapter as well and lives part-time with her novelist husband, Charles, who hilariously laments that many lauded novelists these days bear the name Jonathan and write ridiculously long novels.  As always, Franzen’s prose is superb.  My favorite line comes when Tom is describing an early meeting with his future wife, Anabel, at an art gallery.  She “came clad in a black-trimmed crimson cashmere coat and strong opinions.”  For me, the part about the opinions is a compliment, although the coat doesn’t sound too bad, either.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

MIND'S EYE by Hakan Nesser

Janek Mitter wakes up to find his wife Eva dead in the bathtub after a night of serious drinking for the two of them.  Janek is certain that he did not kill his wife, but he cannot remember what happened the previous evening.  He soon finds himself arrested and convicted but is placed in a mental institution.  Inspector Van Veeteren has a hunch that Janek is not the murderer, and a subsequent murder convinces him completely.  Since Eva and Janek both taught at the same school, Van Veeteren and his staff spend a good deal of investigative energy checking out the alibis of the school’s employees and students.  They also drop in on some of Eva’s old friends and discover several deaths in Eva’s realm—her father, a classmate, and her young son.  Are these deaths, originally ruled as accidents, really homicides related to Eva’s?  I enjoyed the speedy pace of this novel, which accelerates toward the end when Van Veeteren sets his own deadline by booking a vacation trip to Australia, and I have no complaints about the writing, the translation, or the dialog.  However, none of the characters came sufficiently to life for me, perhaps because they all seem to be loners to some degree.  The novel is driven by the quest to solve the crime, rather than any sympathy for the police or the victims.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION by Ottessa Moshfegh

Thank goodness this book is fiction, because otherwise it would be appalling.  The unnamed first-person narrator is a young, beautiful, affluent New Yorker who wants to reboot her life by sleeping for a year.  However, she finds her goal not that easy to attain and enlists the help of Dr. Tuttle, a psychiatrist who prescribes every nature of sleep-inducing drug imaginable and can’t remember that the narrator’s parents are both deceased.  The fact that the narrator is now an orphan may be what has propelled her toward hibernation, but I was never totally sure about that.  Her one friend, Reva, checks up on her now and then but mostly just envies and aspires to the narrator’s effortless beauty and style.  So how can a novel about a sleeping beauty hold the reader’s attention, especially since there is no prince to come wake her up with a kiss?  For one thing, the narrator sometimes wakes to find that she has left her building and gone shopping, among other things, while she was under the influence of a drug called infermiterol (invented by the author).  Her ex-lover Trevor has moved on, but that doesn’t stop her from calling him and threatening suicide in order to get his attention.  In other words, this woman is disturbed, but perhaps her self-prescribed sleep therapy will work, after all.  She just needs to devote as much effort to getting her act together as she does to achieving a year of dormancy.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

A REPLACEMENT LIFE by Boris Fishman

Slava Gelman’s grandmother has just died.  She escaped a Jewish ghetto in Minsk, Belarus, at the age of 15.  Now it’s 2006, and she is eligible for restitution from the German government, if only she were still alive.  Slava’s grandfather wants to claim the benefits in his late wife’s stead, even though he is not eligible, and he knows just the person to fabricate his whereabouts during the war.  Slava is on the staff of a New York magazine, but he never actually writes anything.  At first he is alarmed by his grandfather’s suggestion that he pen some fiction on his behalf, but then Slava warms to the idea as a way to honor his grandmother’s suffering.  Things spiral out of hand, as Slava finds his talent in demand, when his grandfather’s friends seek him out to fabricate stories for them as well.  Slava has a certain amount of ambivalence about how he is attempting to bilk the German government, but he enjoys this work more than his unchallenging paying job.  He becomes romantically involved with the woman in the adjacent cubicle, whose job is, ironically, fact-checking.  He hilariously interrogates her about how she goes about her job without disclosing why he suddenly has an interest in exposing fraudulent copy.  I loved the storyline, but I was never really sure in which direction Slava’s moral compass was pointed.  More annoying was how the narrative was a little jumpy, and sometimes my mind did not make the leap immediately.  On the whole, though, the premise is fascinating from both an ethical and a literary standpoint, and the writing is superb.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN by Jonathan Lethem

Lionel, the narrator of this noir crime novel, has Tourette’s syndrome, which causes him to utter nonsensical words and to touch things he has no business touching.  He works for L&L Car Service in Brooklyn, but it’s really a detective agency—kind of.  L&L’s owner is Frank Minna, who recruited all of his “agents” from an orphanage when they were teenagers.  Minna dies of a stab wound early in the novel, and Lionel decides to become a true detective and investigate Minna’s murder.  Dubbed “Freakshow” by Minna, he battles his Tourette’s every step of the way, but he is probably the smartest of the Minna men and therefore may have the best shot at discovering the truth.  Basically, this is a book about small-time wiseguys who don’t even carry firearms.  The author does a great job of generating a mood that mimics early twentieth century crime novels where the detective wore a fedora.  This novel even has a shady femme fatale in the person of Julia, Minna’s widow, who hightails it out of town as soon as she hears the news of her husband’s death.  The villains are a pair of mobsters, Matricardi and Rockaforte, known as The Clients, and the Fujisaki Corporation, which may be using a Zen studio as a front.  The conclusion of the book is a little rushed and not totally crystal clear to me, but the writing is excellent.  At one point, Lionel describes his tongue as feeling like “it had been bound in horseradish-and-cola-soaked plaster and left out on the moon overnight.”  Even if the storyline is a little thin, Lionel and his trippy exclamations are worth the ride.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

EDUCATED by Tara Westover

I was reluctant to read this book, because I had heard so much about it.  In some ways, this memoir resembles Angela’s Ashes, All Over But the Shoutin’, The Liars’ Club, and The Glass Castle.  These are all very different books, but they all tell the story of the author’s remarkable journey from an appalling upbringing to success as an adult.  In Educated, however, the author particularly recounts her tortured ambivalence toward her family, which is governed by her father—a fundamentalist Mormon who eschews doctors and anticipates the end of the world at any moment.  The most shocking part of the story is the physical abuse that the author suffers at the hands of an older brother.  Plus, her father and another brother are severely burned in separate workplace accidents, and neither is treated by a medical professional.  The family deals in scrap metal, and there are numerous on-the-job calamities involving machinery and just plain negligence, in addition to two horrific car accidents.  Actually, many events in this book are shocking, and the author continues to put herself in harm’s way, in some cases because she has no other recourse, and in other cases, because she does not want to estrange herself from her family.  If there is a flaw here, it is that she fails to make me understand why she has such a hard time making a clean break.  She does not paint her parents as sympathetic characters—ever.  Her mother lies to her, and her father puts everything in God’s hands, denying personal accountability for any of the catastrophes, most of which are his fault.  I get that for the first seventeen years of her life she has no outside experiences with which to compare the strict framework that she has endured.  However, once she begins to become “educated” and to realize how much she has missed out on, I expected her to let go of her previous life without remorse. Bottom line, though, hers is a remarkable story, and she tells it beautifully.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

THE SILENT PATIENT by Alex Michaelides

Alicia Berenson is in a psychiatric institution after being convicted of killing her husband Gabriel.  Theo, the narrator, is a psychotherapist who obtains employment at the institution where Alicia is housed, so that he will have the opportunity to draw her out of her silence; she has not spoken since the murder six years ago.   Alicia’s diary entries are interspersed among the chapters narrated by Theo, in order to give the reader some of her background, since she is non-verbal.  Theo begins investigating the murder himself by talking to Alicia’s friends and assorted unsavory relatives.  On the home front, Theo discovers that his wife is having an affair.  Since character development in this novel is virtually non-existent, I had to wonder what was the point of this subplot.  Several people had warned me that the book had a twist at the end, and gradually I began to put two and two together.  I’m not saying that I figured it out exactly, but I guessed enough to make that twist pretty anti-climactic.  Psychological thrillers have become so popular that I think we are giving some of them more credit than they deserve.  This one in particular was definitely a disappointment.  Plus, the people who work at Alicia’s mental institution seem to be more wacko than the patients.  At best, they are unprofessional and incompetent.   The most annoying aspect of the novel, though, is that Alicia refuses to speak.  The author tries to draw an analogy to a Greek tragedy, but this comparison is a huge stretch.  I felt that Alicia’s silence was really just a ploy on the author’s part to allow the other pieces of the novel to fit together, and he wasn’t totally successful in that endeavor.  On the plus side, this book held my attention and was a fast read.  Best of all, it made me appreciate a really good thriller, which it is not.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

INSTRUCTIONS FOR A HEATWAVE by Maggie O'Farrell

The Riordan family members all have secrets, and they are all blockbusters.  It’s 1976 London, and Robert Riordan has disappeared, setting in motion the assembly of his grown children--Monica, Michael Francis, and Aoife (“Ee-fah”).   Their mother Gretta seems reluctant to acknowledge Robert’s absence, and her children have personal issues of their own.  Monica is terrified of the reaction of her stepchildren when she has to have their beloved cat euthanized.  Michael Francis sees his marriage disintegrating as his wife spends more and more time away from home.  Aoife, the most compelling of the siblings, is a bartender in the States and moonlights as a photographer’s assistant, despite a crippling but hidden disability.  She and Monica have not spoken to one another in three years.  Everyone’s embarrassing secrets are revealed, one by one, and they are all somewhat shocking, particularly to the other family members, with the possible exception of a marital infidelity.  I had trouble warming up to these characters, all of whom have, to some degree, created their own messes.  However, despite their flaws and mistakes, I kept reading in the hope that they would all somehow make peace with one another.  This is ultimately a novel about relationships and the realization that the truth will indeed set us free.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

WOMEN TALKING by Miriam Toews

If you like dialog, this is the book for you, as the title is completely appropriate.  The women in question are members of a Mennonite community in Bolivia, and their story stems from a real event.  While they were sleeping, a group of men from the community—husbands, brothers, and sons of the women, in many cases—drugged and raped the women.  I use the term “women” loosely here, as the victims include children as young as three years old.  For a three-year-old to have an STD transmitted during a rape, possibly by a relative, is unfathomable, and, in this case, the only antibiotics available are those used on livestock.  The novel takes place over a couple of days in a hayloft, where the women meet to decide what is the best course of action.  The women believe August Epp, the narrator and local schoolteacher, to be harmless.  Therefore, they have recruited him to take minutes of their meetings, as none of the women can read or write.  They have narrowed their prospects down to three options:  leave, stay and fight, or do nothing.  Another option surfaces later, and that is for the men to leave.  Currently the perpetrators are in jail in town, and the rest of the men in the community are also absent, working on raising bail for the incarcerated men.  We soon learn that these are strong, opinionated women, but their religion has basically rendered them powerless.  This book reminded me of A Thousand Splendid Suns, where again we have a male-dominated, religion-infused society in which women have little hope of escaping their oppression.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

ALL MY PUNY SORROWS by Miriam Toews

To say that this novel is sad is a gross over-simplification.  In fact, the last few chapters are downright joyous with quips that made me laugh out loud.  Up to that point, though, the book is a semi-autobiographical novel about family in which the father commits suicide by stepping in front of a train, and his daughter Elf, short for Elfrieda, a brilliant concert pianist, also wants to die.  The other daughter, Yoli, in her forties, narrates, and desperately wants to keep Elf alive, until she finally hatches a plan to get Elf to Switzerland for a legal suicide.  How Yoli manages to remain remotely sane is the question I kept asking, and the fact that she does makes her heroic.  She is the divorced mother of two, living in Toronto, but she spends much of the novel in the psych ward of a hospital in Winnipeg, visiting her sister, near the small Mennonite community in which she grew up.  I kept wondering how or if Elf’s healthcare might have been handled differently in the U.S.—not necessarily better, but possibly differently.  For Elf, it seemed that perhaps music was both her salvation and her albatross, but everyone in the novel sees it as what has kept her going up to this point.  Honestly, I’ve never been really close to someone who ultimately committed suicide, so that I’m speaking from a complete lack of experience.  Near the end, Yoli has an argument with a friend as to whether suicide is an act of courage or of vanity.  I’m certainly not qualified to answer that question, but it’s clear in this case that it is an act of desperation.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Carl Morck is a curmudgeonly Copenhagen police detective mourning the death of one colleague and critical injury of another in an ambush.  Now he has been relegated to the basement to tackle cold cases, along with a new eager assistant, Assad, who also serves as his department’s janitor.  Carl and Assad are the only employees in the newly formed Department Q, and Assad has unexpected skills from an undisclosed prior life.  Carl is obviously suffering from PTSD and drags his feet for a while but eventually begins investigating the disappearance of Merete Lynggaard, a beautiful liberal politician who eschewed social interaction in order to care for her disabled brother.  She has been missing for five years, and her brother has been institutionalized.  Gradually Carl and Assad begin to unravel the mystery of her disappearance, while Merete struggles to maintain her sanity in isolation in an impenetrable room.  We follow her imprisonment in detail and try to solve the puzzle, as she does, of what she has done to deserve such torture, including having to pull her own abscessed tooth.  Her plight motivates us as readers to hope that Carl and Assad will hurry up and rescue her, while they are not even aware that she is alive.  This novel is a treat in every way with twists, suspense, and a smidge of humor to keep you reading and wishing for more at the end.  In fact, for once I succumbed to the temptation to read the sneak peek for the next book in the series.  I have to say that Assad basically steals the show here, and I look forward to learning more about his background in the sequels.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

PACHINKO by Min Jin Lee

For me, this book was long and somewhat tedious.  The writing is good, and the storyline is easy to follow, but it did not affect me emotionally as deeply as it should have.  Sunja, a teenager in early 20th century Korea, becomes pregnant by a married man.  She then marries a Christian minister, Isak, who feels compelled to help her out after her family nurses him back to health from an almost fatal bout of tuberculosis.  They join his brother and sister-in-law in Osaka, Japan, where bigotry against Koreans is the norm.  Both couples struggle to make a living, especially after Isak is imprisoned for religious/political reasons.  In some ways, this book reminds me of Unbroken, in that the Japanese come across as cruel and unreasonable.  Unfortunately, conditions in Korea become more and more horrendous as the century progresses, so that these Korean immigrants have no choice really but to stay in Japan.  Even as their success grows in the pachinko (a cross between pinball and slot machines) business, they know that obtaining a passport is practically impossible.  I felt sympathy for their plight and disdain for the Japanese government, but I never really bonded with the characters.  The men, in particular, make some bizarre decisions that I did not understand at all, especially one at the end that I found particularly disappointing.  The women, on the other hand, are salt-of-the-earth types who do the best they can under the circumstances.  They are hard-working, enterprising, and undaunted by obstacles, such as a husband’s pride.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

INHERITANCE by Dani Shapiro

I did not really want to read this book and certainly did not expect to like it.  Memoirs are definitely not my thing, but my dread was quickly dispelled.  This book focuses on the author’s discovery via DNA testing that her now deceased father was not her biological father.  As Dani was much closer to her Orthodox Jewish father than to her somewhat narcissistic mother, this revelation about her paternity completely rocks her world.  The only flaw in this whole story is that Dani had loads of clues throughout her life and simply chose to disregard them.  To ignore how different her coloring and features were from her parents seems outrageous to me.  Perhaps, though, she had some subconscious doubt about her parentage that caused her to do the DNA test in the first place, albeit at the suggestion of her husband.  I loved several things about this book—the suspense, the writing, and especially the emotional wallop that it packs.  It brought tears to my eyes more than once, as Dani does some in-depth soul searching about what it means to be a daughter and to be loved.  Her conception using artificial insemination leaves her with questions that she may never be able to answer, particularly with regard to whether or not either or both parents knew that she was not her father’s biological offspring.  The book also addresses the fact that sperm banks can no longer guarantee anonymity.  Our access to DNA information is remarkable, and it can enlighten us as to where we came from; we just have to ensure that it does not redefine who we are at our core.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

THE ASSOCIATION OF SMALL BOMBS by Karan Mahajan

The irony of the title is that there is no such thing as a small bomb.  However, some bombings garner more international attention than others.  In this novel, the bombing of a market in Delhi barely registers as a tragic event, except to those who lost loved ones in the blast.  Two boys, ages 11 and 13, die, but their friend Mansoor survives, fleeing the market and abandoning his dead buddies.  We follow Mansour into adulthood, who is stricken by survivor’s guilt, as well as carpal tunnel syndrome, which ends his Computer Science studies in the U.S.  For me, however, the character development in this book is lacking.  I never got a good sense of who Mansoor is at his core, as he seems to morph from scholar to activist to religious fanatic, depending on who his friends are.  Nor did I feel particularly moved by the pain and grief that the Khuranas, parents of the dead boys, suffer.  They have another child, a daughter, but the father does not love the child, and the mother ignores her, becoming heavily involved in the comforting of the families of other bomb victims.  I would say that the author does a good job of depicting the types of loosely organized groups that carry out these horrific politically motivated bombings without remorse.  I certainly did not find myself sympathizing with any of them.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

FRESHWATER by Akwaeke Emezi

This book is truly weird, and I do not mean that in a good way.  Plus, the grammar is atrocious, with the wrong pronoun used as often as not.  (Nominative case should be objective case or vice versa.)  The book is about a young woman named Ada who moves from Nigeria to the U.S. at 16 to go to college.  She is mostly cut off from family and friends, and her body is inhabited by “gods,” including one in particular that leads her body into a number of sexual encounters.  The gods also serve as narrators, and I was never sure if Ada had a multiple personality disorder or whether she was possessed.  Either way, the book left me wondering if Ada had a soul apart from the demons.  She certainly has no trouble finding lovers, but otherwise, this novel does not have much of a plot, and Ada’s character, as I said, is difficult to distinguish from those of the gods residing in her mind.  I wish I had something good to say about this book, other than the fact that the writing is good if you can overlook the grammatical errors.  Near the end we find that some events in Ada’s childhood may have contributed to her mental distress, but I felt that the author added this information more as an excuse and an afterthought than as a substantive contributor to Ada’s issues.  If, in fact, the voices in Ada’s head are actually related to mental illness, I don’t think the cause is necessarily that cut and dried, nor is the resolution ever achieved.  Basically, I did not understand this book, and therefore I was unable to glean any kind of meaning, education, admiration, or pleasure from it.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is socially awkward but has a decent job in Glasgow, where she lives alone and drinks lots of vodka to get through the weekends.  Then a computer virus causes her to meet Raymond, the IT guy at her company.  The two become oddball friends, but Eleanor has developed a crush on a local rock singer.  She bears scars on her face from a fire but her sudden interest in the singer inspires her to cut her waist-length hair and undergo a makeover.  She may be able to conceal the facial scars, but she has managed to bottle up deeper emotional scars that ultimately lead her to question her self-worth.  We don’t learn the details of the fire or, for that matter, the horrors of her childhood at the hands of a physically and emotionally abusive mother, until very late in the novel.  Her friendship with Raymond, however, leads her to come out of her shell somewhat and meet his mother, as well as the family of an elderly man whom they assist after a fall.  In some ways this novel reminded me of Bridget Jones’s Diary, in that Eleanor is focused on impressing the wrong guy and drinks too much, and Eleanor is just as predictable as Bridget but not nearly as funny.  Actually, Eleanor’s childhood trauma is so severe that I’m not really sure if this books is supposed to be funny, although a number of reviewers have described it as hilarious.  In my opinion she is also delusional, with regard to her crush, among other things, and I suppose her delusions are a result of the horrors she suffered as a child, but I didn’t quite get the connection.  As for the book’s predictability, there’s only one remotely surprising revelation near the end, and I had to kick myself for not having seen it coming, as it mirrors a similar revelation in The Woman in the Window.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

LESS by Andrew Sean Greer

Arthur Less, a gay novelist, is about to turn 50, and his younger ex-lover Freddy is getting married.  The last thing Arthur wants to do is go to the wedding, but he also can’t bear to stay home.  The only solution is to leave the country, and he embarks on a series of junkets that will occupy him through his birthday and Freddy’s wedding.  This trip includes an interview of a sci-fi writer, a literary prize ceremony, teaching a class, and a few other adventures and obligations.  He soon finds that his publisher is declining his latest novel, forcing him to rethink its storyline and, more importantly, his own life.  Arthur is plucky and open to new experiences, and his escapades are humorous at times, especially when he is butchering the German language in Berlin.  He’s going through a very melancholy period, though, and then he has to take it on the chin for other things besides his writing.  Sometimes, Murphy’s Law keeps biting Arthur, but he’s a lovable guy, and his soul-searching is poignant and honest.  He realizes that he is better known as Pulitzer-prize-winning poet Robert Brownburn’s former lover than for any of his own accomplishments.  One of my favorite characters is Marian Brownburn, Robert’s ex-wife, who has a soft spot in her heart for Arthur, despite his having stolen the heart of her husband.  This is not exactly a page-turner, but Arthur just kept growing on me.  He never wallows in self-pity, and he takes advantage of opportunities as they present themselves.  His is a lonely journey, and I was happy to experience it along with him. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

THE OVERSTORY by Richard Powers

This novel is mainly about trees, but there are some human characters as well.  The author introduces the people in the first third of the book, and I was pleased that the table of contents provides a list of the main characters with page numbers for their sections.  Most of these characters’ lives intersect in a protest against the harvesting of giant redwoods for lumber.  In fact, two people spend over a year in the top of one such tree. The characters run the gamut—a property attorney, a video game entrepreneur, a college student or two, a botanist, and more.  They fall in love with each other and with trees and ultimately face consequences for an act of rebellion that has tragic collateral damage.  The real revelation, though, is that trees protect one another as well as the rest of the planet.  The people, on the other hand, are not always so protective of one another and eventually have to make some very tough decisions in the face of betrayal.  The primary challenges with reading this book are its length, its pace, and characters that are sometimes hard to recall.  The last 100 pages or so are the most suspenseful and have to do more with human interactions and failings than with trees.  The writing is beautiful and profound but often dense and even ponderous when the author is waxing eloquent about trees.  That said, this is an important book, as deforestation is one of the many contributors to global warming, not to mention more obvious disasters, such as mudslides.  More trees could in fact help reverse climate change, as they absorb carbon dioxide.  Even if this book does not inspire you to dissidence, I guarantee it will inspire you to look at trees with a lot more appreciation.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

ORFEO by Richard Powers

I wanted to love this book, but really it’s a little haywire.  Peter Els calls 911 when his dog dies, and this unfortunate error in judgment causes him big trouble.  When the first responders arrive, they find that he has a slew of petri dishes in which he is experimenting with bacteria.  For him it may be a hobby, but for the powers-that-be, it’s a big no-no and reeks of possible criminal activity, such as cooking up anthrax or smallpox.  What he’s really trying to do is insert music into DNA code, and I have to confess that I really don’t quite understand what that means.  In any case, Els embarks on a cross-country road trip in an effort to avoid arrest and revisit the past.  The book flashes back to how Els got to this point, and he realizes too late that he probably missed his calling in chemistry.  Instead, he pursued music composition, eternally seeking to create something super-original.  His quest eventually costs him his marriage and his relationship with his daughter when he reunites with his avant-garde collaborator, Richard Donner.  The project in question is an opera whose theme coincides with the Waco debacle, which takes place right before opening night.  This book has some good moments, and the writing is beautiful, but it’s a bit too cerebral for me.  As for the music angle, I think this book is a too technical for the average reader, and most people probably think that music is something to be listened to for its beauty or for the emotions or awe that the listener experiences.  There’s a lot of analysis here that seems unnecessary and even burdening to some degree.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

VISIBLE EMPIRE by Hannah Pittard

This novel takes place against the backdrop of a real event—a 1962 plane crash in which over 100 wealthy Atlanta art patrons perished.  Civil rights issues also figure largely into the plot, and one of the main characters is Piedmont Dobbs, a young black man whose life changes radically after he drives two intoxicated white men to a private airplane hangar near Athens, GA.  One of those white men is Robert Tucker, a newspaper editor whose young mistress was aboard the ill-fated flight.  He is despondent over her death and abandons his pregnant wife Lily, whose parents died in the crash and who now finds herself penniless.  I found the writing to be adequate and the storyline to be captivating, although perhaps a little far-fetched.  Due to some rather odd circumstances, Piedmont and Lily become acquainted and bail each other out of difficult situations.  Having lived in Atlanta for over 30 years, although not in 1962, I enjoyed revisiting some of the area surrounding the governor’s mansion, which was occupied by segregationist Ernest Vandiver in 1962.  Ivan Allen was mayor of Atlanta at the time, and he favored integration.  He is a lesser character in the book, who has a difficult time comforting his wife Lulu, who, at least in this novel, becomes severely depressed in the aftermath of the plane crash, which killed so many friends and prominent Atlantans.  Coincidentally or not, the Allens’ oldest son committed suicide at the age of 53.  This was a fast read and somewhat light, despite the weighty subject matter.  It’s hard for me to say whether it would appeal to someone without an Atlanta connection.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

THE ONLY WOMAN IN THE ROOM by Marie Benedict

Kudos to Marie Benedict for bringing to light the accomplishments of such women as Hedy Lamarr.  Now if only her writing had a little more sparkle.  Anyway, back to Hedy.  With WWII approaching, she marries a powerful Austrian arms dealer in the hope that he can protect her and her Jewish parents from the purge that is coming.  Inevitably, her husband joins forces with Hitler and Mussolini, and Hedy escapes to California to resume her acting career.  Guilt continues to haunt her over the fact that she had access to information about Nazi weaponry that she failed to pass on to the Allies.  To help the war effort, she and George Antheil, a composer, develop a system of torpedo guidance, which they present to the U.S. Navy.  Naturally, the Navy refuses to believe that their system has merit, supposedly because Hedy and George lack credibility as scientists.  In addition to the lackluster writing style of this novel, another shortcoming for me was the abrupt ending to the book.  Most of all, though, I felt that the author took a major shortcut in not giving the reader a little more information as to how Hedy and George became well-versed in wireless technology.  They patented their idea, which was inspired by player piano ribbons, but did they get all of their education from books?  One of the Navy’s initial objections was that their invention was too heavy.  Hedy claims in the novel, however, that their system would fit inside a watch.  Wow, I know nothing about this type of technology, but the transistor radios of the 1960s—two decades later—were a lot bigger than a watch.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

THE HUMAN STAIN by Philip Roth

Coleman Silk is a classics professor at a small college.  When he innocently refers to some students that have never shown up for class as spooks, his remark is interpreted by some as racist, as the students are black.  Although he had no previous knowledge of the students’ ethnicity, he eventually resigns from his post, further cementing the appearance of guilt.  The irony of his plight is that Coleman is black himself, although he has managed to conceal this fact from his wife, children, colleagues, and friends for decades.  Near the end of the novel, his sister contrasts his behavior, in which he has divorced himself totally from his mother and siblings, with that of his brother, who has fought for civil rights.  Perhaps Coleman has taken the easy way out, in order to receive treatment equal to whites, but his whiteness is ultimately his downfall.  This aspect of the storyline captivated me, but another aspect did not.  Coleman enters into a sexual relationship with Faunia, a woman half his age, who is a member of the janitorial staff at the college.  Her ex-husband is a PTSD victim and is stalking her, putting Coleman in harm’s way as well.   I just didn’t understand what Faunia’s real purpose was in the novel, except to give Coleman something to live for after the demise of his career.  The novel is set against the backdrop of Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearings, and Coleman’s affair seems to mirror Clinton’s escapades--sort of.  Overall, though, the storyline is unsettling, making it a decent read, especially with Roth’s fabulous prose, except when the author does get a little carried away with ruminations, slowing the pace down to a crawl.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

I MARRIED A COMMUNIST by Philip Roth

This novel takes place during the McCarthy era, and Ira Ringold is a communist.  He is also a radio star married to an even bigger star.  His marriage is hampered by his wife’s adult daughter who rules the roost.  Still, he hangs in there, partly because he fears that if he bails out of the marriage he will be blacklisted.  His older brother Murray is a high school teacher, and his student, Nathan Zuckerman, is the narrator.  Nathan becomes sort of a protégé to both men, and he becomes caught up in Ira’s vision for the common man.  This is really Ira’s story, though, and his personal situation with all the trappings of fame contrasts sharply with his political leanings.  Nathan, on the other hand, has to choose between Ira’s influence and that of a college professor who admonishes Nathan for mixing politics with art in his writing.  The issue that struck me the most was Ira’s complaint that communists in this country were being persecuted for what they thought, while no one was being punished for the lynchings taking place in the South.  I found this book to be highly applicable to today’s political divide, and Roth’s prose is always superb.  At one point he describes a dilapidated punching bag with supreme eloquence and humor.  That paragraph alone makes this book worth reading, and it has nothing to do with communism or politics.  All in all, I liked this book better than American Pastoral.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

VOX by Christina Dalcher

Imagine that our country’s leaders have decided in the past year that women should not speak more than 100 words per day.  In this novel they enforce this limit by requiring all women to wear a metal wrist counter that delivers a nasty shock if the wearer exceeds her maximum word count.  Women no longer study anything in school except rudimentary arithmetic and home ec.  Jean, our first-person narrator, is a neurolinguist who was researching a cure for a brain disorder that causes language dysfunction.  However, women can no longer hold jobs, and Jean just did not see this dystopian development coming.  Then she is suddenly called back into service to finish her work, alongside her two colleagues--Lorenzo, who also happens to be her lover and the father of her unborn child, and Lin, whom Jean has not seen since their work was discontinued.  Jean fears that her unborn child will be a girl whose language skills will be stifled just as her 6-year-old daughter’s are now.  Jean also has three sons who are starting to drink the Kool-Aid of the misogynists, and her husband, the president’s science advisor, is on her side but not necessarily willing to make waves.  Soon she and her teammates discover the true nefarious purpose of their research, complicating matters even further.  This book is stunning in many ways and points up all sorts of sticky issues, including Jean’s growing resentment and distrust of the men in her family, as she and Lorenzo hatch a possible plot to get out of the country before the baby is born.  Although we know from the first sentence that Jean will succeed in overthrowing the government in a week, the book is still suspenseful and a bit madcap, as we learn that she has more sympathizers to her cause than she realizes.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

THE RIVER by Peter Heller

Peter Heller knows how to tell a suspenseful adventure story.  This novel is as turbulent as its title waterway, in which two college students, Wynn and Jack, take a Canadian wilderness canoe trip.  Things start to get dicey when they spot a raging wildfire that forces them to re-evaluate their plan.  However, the fire is not the only life-threatening obstacle.  The two men add a seriously injured woman, Maia, to their party and find themselves in the crosshairs of her possibly psychopathic husband, Pierre.  Soon their leisurely paddle trip becomes a quest for survival, and their absolute trust in on another starts to erode.  Wynn, the eternal optimist, has a tough time grasping that Pierre could be lying in wait planning an ambush.  Jack, on the other hand, has a sixth sense that warns him when something is amiss, and he takes a more pragmatic approach:  Get them before they get you.  Regardless, these are two guys that you would trust with your life, and Maia has to do just that.  They manage to feed her and stitch her up, even after most of their provisions have been lost.  Their Deliverance-like nightmare had me in its clutches right up until the end, at which point the narration becomes very confusing.  Fortunately, the epilogue clarifies everything.  I think I understand why the author wrapped things up in this fashion, since a heartbreaking event basically renders everything that happens afterward relatively unimportant.  I’ve read all of Heller’s novels, and this one is second only to The Dog Stars.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

IN THE WOODS by Tana French

Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox are partners in the Dublin Murder Squad, and they have just received a case involving the murder of a 12-year-old girl, Katy Devlin, in Knocknaree.  Unbeknownst to their boss, Rob grew up in that area, and two of his friends disappeared from there when they were kids two decades ago.  He was with them that day but remembers nothing about what happened.  That’s my first problem with this novel.  Rob has apparently declined hypnosis and/or psychotherapy as a means of unlocking his memory.  Really?  Plus, I found it implausible that more characters didn’t guess Ryan’s involvement in the old case.  Anyway, the big question is whether or not the two cases are related.  Investigating Katy’s murder causes Rob to become increasingly more unhinged and less objective about the suspects in the case, and his previously superb relationship with Cassie suffers.  As a result, Rob, the first-person narrator throughout, becomes less appealing as a character, while Cassie’s star rises.  All of the main characters are well-developed, including Katy’s dysfunctional family members.  Also front and center is an archaeological excavation, where Katy’s body was discovered, that is taking place in advance of a controversial roadway development.  A corrupt political figure who stands to gain major financial benefit from the roadway appears to be the only person with a motive.  All in all, this is a better-than-average thriller, with solid writing and dialog, but the ending was disappointing.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

THE MARS ROOM by Rachel Kushner

This book is fiction, but it has a lot in common with Orange Is the New Black.  It takes place in a women’s prison, and the protagonist is an intelligent white woman who may not deserve her fate.  In this case, Romy Hall was a stripper who had to move to another city to avoid the attentions of a customer-turned-stalker.  It’s easy to guess why she’s now incarcerated.  She also has a young son who is temporarily living with Romy’s mother, but his situation is not so temporary, since Romy will be in prison for the rest of her life.  Hopelessness pervades Romy’s story, from her trial with a tired and lackluster public defender at her side to her quest to determine the whereabouts of her son after her mother’s death.  Romy has no resources, no visitors, no friends on the outside.  Her life is so bleak as to be barely worth living.  If the author’s purpose is to make us aware of how our prison system is stacked against people like Romy, then she has succeeded.  This novel takes us where we wouldn’t go of our own volition.  Gordon Hauser, a prison teacher, takes an interest in Romy’s plight, but he, too, runs up against a brick wall in trying to help her, and then he just sort of vanishes from the narrative.  As is the case with many novels these days, the ending is abrupt and ambiguous.  The lack of any kind of closure, good or bad, makes this novel just another forgettable story for me.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

TELEX FROM CUBA by Rachel Kushner

My main problem with this book is that there’s no tangible plot.  The setting is Cuba in the 1950s, and the characters are Americans living there in luxury, relative to the Cubans who do the hard work in the fields and mines.  We know that Castro will eventually change their situation drastically, so that the ending is as expected.  This novel actually has a swarm of characters, including alcoholic mothers, children coming of age, a stripper, and a Frenchman with a shady past.  Still, there are no seminal events, except the revolution itself.  Not only is there no real forward progress in the plot here, but the characters are not memorable in any way, and the writing is adequate at best.  Next Year in Havana may be a bit fluffy, but it covers much of the same territory and is a better read, in my opinion.  I did not love Kushner’s latest novel, The Mars Room, but it’s a masterpiece compared to this.  The American men and women in this book are not bad people, and they are fully aware that American imperialism is not benefitting the general population, the vast majority of whom live in poverty.  The author does make crystal clear how the gulf between the have and have-nots and the corruption of Batista’s regime, as well as Prío’s before him, enabled the Castro brothers to attract so many young men to their cause, including a few Americans. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

DEAR COMMITTEE MEMBERS by Julie Schumacher

I have to admit that this book is LOL funny at times.  However, it is also monotonous, and I don’t consider it a novel, epistolary or otherwise.  It consists entirely of letters of recommendation (LORs) written by Jason Fitger, an English professor at a small college.  Some of his letters are for people he barely knows, and some are for people he cannot recommend, and these two types of letters are certainly the funniest.  My favorites are the ones he writes on behalf of his tech support guy, Duffy Napp, appropriately named, since he appears to sleepwalk through his working hours.  Fitger is eager to find Mr. Napp employment elsewhere but hilariously betrays his motivation in his recommendation letters.  Fitger corresponds with his ex-wife and a couple of ex-girlfriends and complains incessantly to anyone who will listen about the English department’s diminishing status and the renovation that is going on in his building.  He also demonstrates a soft spot for students who are struggling financially and goes to great lengths to help them find employment.  This book does have a tiny bit of plot buried in its pages, and the author does a fine job of painting Fitger as a curmudgeon with a heart and a sense of humor.   Fitger does not suffer fools gladly but describes their shortcomings in an amusing manner to lessen the blow.  I am intrigued by the cover illustration, which appears to be the back end of a porcupine.  I would say that Fitger is prickly indeed.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

MRS. FLETCHER by Tom Perrotta

Eve Fletcher is an attractive 46-year-old, sending her only son Brendan off to college.  Eve is divorced and has mixed feelings about her empty nest status, but she’s determined to make the best of it.  By day she is the director of a senior center, but by night she attends a community college class on gender and society, taught by Margo, a transgender woman.  Eve begins to explore her own sexual inclinations, finding herself attracted to Amanda, a young employee, and to Justin, a high school classmate of Brendan’s.  Meanwhile, Brendan, who seemingly has no redeeming qualities, soon finds that his wild college experience is not working out as planned.  Eve knows that she has not raised a model citizen, but she allows him to go his own way, and he becomes more despicable by the moment.  All of the other characters, on the other hand, are navigating social minefields of their own, with varying degrees of success.  One reviewer suggested that the book title implies that Eve is sort of a modern-day Mrs. Robinson, but she’s not a seductress at all.  Her porn-induced fantasies may get the better of her at times, but she treads carefully and respectfully, in stark contrast to her misogynist son.  There’s more here, though, than the story of a woman going through a sort of mid-life crisis.  Perrotta uses a light touch to explore heavy subject matter, including autism and aging, as well as gender identity.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

CRAZY RICH ASIANS by Kevin Kwan

At first this novel turned me off with its mediocre prose and frivolous subject matter—rich snobs spending lavishly on everything from couture to private jets.  Then the storyline started to grow on me, and I decided just to sit back and enjoy the ride.  Rachel Chu and Nick Young are college professors living together modestly in New York.  Nick invites Rachel to join him for the summer in Singapore where his family resides and his best friend Colin is getting married.  He neglects to warn Rachel that his family is ridiculously wealthy.  Rachel’s lack of an appropriate pedigree leads Nick’s mother Eleanor to pull out all the stops to break up Nick and Rachel’s relationship.  She enlists the help of some exceptionally mean girls, but Rachel hangs in there until Eleanor crosses a line, delving into Rachel’s family history.  Nick is unwavering in his support of Rachel to the point that he is almost too good to be true.  A subplot involves Nick’s cousin Astrid, who happens to be married to Michael, a man who may be cheating on her and who, like Rachel, does not come from a billionaire family.  The conflict that arises from their net worth gap signals what may lie in store for Nick and Rachel as well. This book has a decent ending but certainly leaves a lot of territory to be explored in the sequels.  It may be a frothy confection, but sometimes you just feel like eating a marshmallow.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

BREATHING OUT by Peggy Lipton

I’m not sure why creative people seem to lead such tortured lives, but it certainly seems to be the case.  If I have one complaint about this novel, it’s that Peggy Lipton’s misfortunes seem a little exaggerated. Certainly having been molested repeatedly as a child traumatizes her and creates a pall over her entire life, but most of her other wounds seem to be self-inflicted.  Growing up, her family life was not warm and nurturing, but her parents were fairly affluent and not abusive.  Emotionally, however, Peggy was not well-balanced, probably suffering from depression, and sought acceptance via sexual relationships that were not always healthy.  My favorite part of the novel were the old photos—with Paul McCartney, with the Mod Squad cast members, with Terence Stamp, with Lou Adler, with Sammy Davis, Jr.,  and with her family.  I was fascinated by all of these encounters and kept returning to the photo pages—not to see her companion but to see how she looked at the time.  Her most fulfilling relationship was with her husband of 14 years, Quincy Jones, and I would expect his memoir to be even more captivating.  The book is sort of a series of reminiscences with a slightly wavering timeline, and the writing is decent and flows nicely.  Her life may have been tainted by sadness but it was never dull, and neither is this book.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

WARLIGHT by Michael Ondaatje

The dust jacket of this book is so appropriate, as everything seems to take place in the dark or under a cloud of mystery, and the foggy London setting further amplifies the mood of the novel.  Teenagers Nathaniel, the narrator, and his sister Rachel find themselves in the care of a stranger, whom they privately call The Moth, shortly after WWII, when their parents supposedly move to Asia.  Their father is a Unilever executive who remains nebulous for the duration of the novel, and I really would have liked a little more explication of his role.  Nathaniel becomes an assistant of sorts to The Moth’s friend with an equally shady nickname—The Darter.  The Darter smuggles Greyhound dogs for the purpose of racing fraud, and Nathaniel delights in accompanying him on river runs to fetch these dogs.  Not everything is as it seems, however, and the book unfolds with a meandering timeline. The shadowy essence of the book becomes even more acute when we learn that Nathaniel’s mother was a British intelligence operative during the war, and I loved how the nickname of The Moth, chosen by the kids, seems so appropriate for an undercover contact.  Although she is absent until deep in the novel. their mother’s covert life is what really drives the storyline, although Nathaniel encounters a few other surprises by the end of the book.  Above all, Ondaatje does a remarkable job of making readers feel as though they are witnessing these lives and events firsthand and yet through a smokescreen.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

ANIL'S GHOST by Michael Ondaatje

The mood that pervades the atmosphere of this novel is eerie, dark, and damp.  How Ondaatje manages to envelop us in the ambience of Sri Lanka I’m not really sure, but it’s his homeland, as well as Anil Tissera’s, the main character in this novel.   She is a forensic anthropologist who has been studying and working in Europe and the U.S. and returns home as part of a U.N. mission to investigate murders probably sanctioned by the Sri Lankan government.  Sarath Diyasena has been assigned to work with her, but Anil can never be sure if his loyalty is to the government or to the truth.  A smattering of other characters randomly appear, including Sarath’s brother, who is a physician that routinely patches together victims of violence.  Sarath has unearthed four skeletons, three of which are very old, and one, which they name Sailor, is very recently buried and has obviously been moved from another location.  The quest to discover Sailor’s history and identity leads Anil and Sarath to Sarath’s old mentor, now blind, and to an alcoholic painter and sculptor who may be able reconstruct Sailor’s head from his skull.  These secondary characters receive primary treatment, which is both informative and disconcerting at the same time.  My biggest beef with this novel is that it leaves a whole host of unanswered questions.  Also, since I am certainly not familiar with Sri Lankan history, I never really got a handle on the motive for the massacres that apparently had become commonplace during the time period in which this novel is set.  I felt as though I had been airdropped into a hostile setting without knowing why it’s hostile.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

WASHINGTON BLACK by Esi Edugyan

George Washington “Wash” Black begins life as a slave in 1830s Barbados.  His life radically changes when Titch, the plantation owner’s brother, selects Wash to serve as ballast for his hot air balloon.  A whole host of adventures ensue, including an explosion that renders Wash severely disfigured.  Titch becomes Wash’s protector, but Wash has a mighty talent for drawing that proves very helpful in Titch’s investigations of plant and animal life.  When Wash witnesses a suicide, he and Titch flee Barbados, as it is likely that Wash will be implicated as a murderer.  The remainder of the book is full of unlikely coincidences and adventures that occur all over the world.   Although there are some grim scenes at the beginning of this novel, it is not generally about the horrific mistreatment of slaves.  It’s about a boy leading an improbable life on the run and ultimately pursuing a quest.  Wash is full of curiosity and awe and manages to get by on his wits and his artistic ability.  Some reviewers have suggested that Wash is searching for identity and freedom, but I saw it as a search for family. He strives to be accepted and treated as an equal.  For some years after he and Titch become separated his life is very solitary, largely due to his terror of being captured and sent back to Barbados.  He is a memorable and lovable character who

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

UNSHELTERED by Barbara Kingsolver

I liked the message in this novel, or, I should say, messages.  The author addresses several topics, including global warming, wasting natural resources, and the dissolution of the middle class.  Willa and her husband Iano are in their fifties but have not been able to accumulate a nest egg, partly due to Iano’s failed attempts at securing tenure and partly due to a stream of calamities.  They move to an inherited home in Vineland, NJ, which begins to crumble around them.  Their grown daughter has just moved back in, and their son Zeke’s girlfriend has just committed suicide shortly after the birth of their son Aldus.  Aldus then joins Willa and Iano’s household, which also includes Iano’s dying father, who mouths off racial slurs while draining their meager funds for his medical care.  Their story alternates with that of Thatcher Greenwood, a fictional 1870s science teacher who befriends Mary Treat, a real-life naturalist who corresponded with Charles Darwin.  Greenwood becomes something of a pariah in town, due to his embracing of Darwin’s findings, much to the chagrin of his social-climbing wife.  Greenwood’s house is also disintegrating, so that the book title has a literal meaning for both the modern-day household and the 1870s one.   The most chilling parallel that Kingsolver draws between the two storylines is the similarity between our current president and Charles Landis, founder of Vineland and a real-life contemporary of Mary Treat.  Some may find the author a little too preachy in this novel, but I have a different beef.  I felt that both storylines lacked any real punch.  Even the murder that occurs has a foregone conclusion and therefore is not that shocking.  Willa and Iano’s problems never seem to have any reprieve.  The addition of an infant to their household may be uplifting in some ways, but he adds to their already towering stress levels.  Kingsolver never leaves her messes unresolved, and this novel is no exception, but I couldn’t help feeling that the ensuing and inevitable resolution, in both storylines,

Sunday, May 5, 2019

ANIMAL DREAMS by Barbara Kingsolver

It’s the 1980s in Arizona.  Codi, a med school dropout, and her sister Hallie have been very close their entire lives, but now Hallie has gone to Nicaragua to provide agricultural expertise.  It’s a very dangerous time there, with the Contra rebellion in full force.  Codi is at loose ends, and since her father is suffering from dementia, she decides to return to her hometown of Grace, Arizona, to teach Biology at the local high school.  When she was fifteen, Codi became pregnant and miscarried, and now she re-encounters the father of her lost child.  Loyd Peregrina is an Apache who works for the railroad and indulges in cockfighting on the side.  He would seem an odd match for Codi, but their rekindled relationship blossoms, despite their obvious differences.  As usual, Kingsolver weaves a social issue into her plot, and this time, in addition to the Nicaraguan controversy surrounding the U.S. backing of the right-wing Contras, Codi discovers that industrial pollution is poisoning the local river and killing her town’s orchards.  Personally, it would never occur to me that there would be orchards in Arizona, but no matter.  The author’s always luminous prose, lively dialog, winsome characters, and a plot in which Code comes to evaluate what she hopes for in life make reading Kingsolver’s books a delight and a privilege.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

THE SAVAGE GARDEN by Mark Mills

Amagansett was a hard act to follow.  This novel does not quite measure up, and I might have enjoyed it more if my expectations had not been so high.  The main character is Adam Strickland, a somewhat lazy Cambridge art history student.  His thesis professor sends him to study a Tuscan garden that was built by a Renaissance nobleman as a memorial to his dead wife.  Adam finds himself drawn to the memorial garden and embarks on a mission to unlock all of the symbolism that its mythological statues and other structures represent.  I found all of the clues to be a bit of stretch, and Adam’s quest reminded me somewhat of a Dan Brown novel, but this book is better written and not quite as shallow.  Signora Docci, who owns the garden and the adjacent villa, turns out to be the professor’s ex-lover, but that’s not the only family secret.  Adam sets out to solve not only the enigma of the garden but also the mystery surrounding the murder of the Signora’s oldest son Emilio, a Nazi sympathizer who was allegedly killed by Germans.  The author does inject a bit of humor with the character of Harry, Adam’s charismatic but unreliable brother, giving this novel a much lighter tone that Amagansett.  Mark Mills is a master of suspense and pacing, but I would have appreciated a little more depth to the characters.