Wednesday, January 30, 2019

THE GOD OF WAR by Marisa Silver

Ares (meaning god of war) Ramirez is the 12-year-old narrator of this novel, set in the 1970s.  He lives with his mother Laurel and half-brother Malcolm in a trailer in the southern California desert.  When Malcolm was a baby, Ares accidentally dropped him, and now Malcolm is intellectually challenged and unable to talk.  Ares and his mother never discuss this event, but Ares bears unspeakable guilt and feels that Malcolm’s well-being is his responsibility.  When Ares meets a teenager with bigger problems than his, he realizes that he does not have to be the perfectly obedient son that he has always been.  Laurel is somewhat of a free spirit who loves both her sons but isn’t the most responsible mother.  Some big stuff happens near the end of this novel, including a major revelation and a violent encounter.  One of the most intriguing characters is Mrs. Poole, the school librarian who has some success in improving Malcolm’s behavior, with no cooperation from Laurel, but who cannot manage the behavior of her own foster son.  Laurel’s on-again, off-again boyfriend Richard also has some good character traits and serves as an occasional father figure to Malcolm and Ares, but he manages to show bad judgment in the area of supervision, just as Laurel does.  Laurel and Richard both mean well, but they expect too much from Ares, and eventually that burden becomes too great a load for him to bear.  Worst of all, the lack of communication between Laurel and Ares leads to a weighty misconception that could have been easily avoided.  The characters are mostly likable, if you can get past their obvious idiosyncrasies, but are not necessarily admirable.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019


Jende Jonga, his wife Neni, and their son are immigrants from Cameroon, living in Harlem.  Jende lands a good-paying job as the chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a Lehman Brothers executive, and his family. Neni is a pharmacy student, and together they hope to get permanent visas by applying for asylum.  Their immigration status is a constant source of stress, as is the question of whether Jende will remain employed as the subprime meltdown hits Wall Street.  His job status becomes even more tenuous when he and Neni find themselves helping Clark and his wife keep secrets from one another.  The Jongas’ dilemma would be an uncomfortable situation even if they were citizens, but knowing that they can be deported at any time makes their decisions about how to proceed through this quagmire even more significant.  This is not by any means the first or the best book about undocumented immigrants trying to negotiate a meandering and sometimes absurd path to residency.  The drama in the Edwards family and its effect on the Jongas sets this book apart, but, on the other hand, that drama is, well, overly dramatic.  We have adultery, drug abuse, and blackmail, and the whole scene just seems too overwrought.  Then, Jende suddenly becomes a completely different sort of character.  I get that he’s exhausted and extremely frustrated, but perhaps he has buried the heavy-handed aspects of his personality in the first part of the book that then surface when the going gets tough.  Also, doesn’t Mighty seem like an odd name for the Edwards’ youngest son?  I never did figure out if this was a nickname or what.  Their other son’s name is Vince, and every time I saw the name Vince Edwards on the page, I thought of the actor who played Dr. Ben Casey on TV back in the 1960s.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

THE OTHER EINSTEIN by Marie Benedict

This novel does not come across as well-balanced.  Its two main characters, Albert Einstein and his first wife, Mileva Maric, are both unbearably flawed.  Since this is historical fiction, I have to wonder how accurate the author’s depiction is. Mileva has a birth defect in her hip that causes her to limp, and this affliction, along with her parents’ conversations about it, has caused her to have very low expectations with regard to her future as a mother and a wife.  Consequently, when Albert begins to shower her with attention, probably with the ulterior motive of picking her brain, she mistakes his flirtations for love.  The two become lovers while studying physics in Zurich, and Albert promises that his and Mileva’s eventual marriage will be an equal partnership in science.  However, Mileva has the ideas and provides the mathematical analysis, but Albert gets all the credit.  A “partnership” it is not.  Mileva bears Albert a daughter before they are married, but Albert never meets the child.  He blames Mileva for the unwanted pregnancy, but really I was very disappointed that a woman of her intellect and scholarly promise allows herself to get into this position.  The two do eventually wed, but Mileva becomes nothing more than a beleaguered hausfrau, while her husband gathers accolades and fools around with other women.  I understand that in the early 1900s she did not have a lot of options, but her tolerance of Albert’s abysmal behavior is just pathetic.  I pity her, but I don’t respect or admire her.  I liked the straightforward timeline in this book and Mileva’s first-person narration, but the writing is rather nondescript, and at times I felt that I could have been reading a novel intended for middle schoolers.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019


I can understand why Three Junes beat out this novel for the 2002 National Book Award, but I can’t understand why this book was a Finalist.  Except for a startling incident in a funeral parlor near the beginning and a twisty revelation near the end, nothing much happens.  The main character, Finus, has pined his entire life for Birdie, but she married Earl, a womanizer and very successful purveyor of shoes in coastal Mercury, Mississippi.  Finus marries Avis, who bears a son, but their marriage soon becomes an estrangement and a long-term separation.  The most lively and interesting character is Creasie, who begins work as Birdie’s maid at around age 12.  She comes from a shanty black community and relies on an old woman there for advice and potions when things go awry.  This novel follows all of these characters from the early 1900s until their deaths and/or old age.  Honestly, if I want to read a really good novel about small-town life, I’ll go with Kent Haruf.  As for the funeral parlor incident near the beginning, it is such a jaw-dropper that I expected more of the same.  No such luck.  The novel is pretty dull until the aforesaid twisty revelation near the end, in which a piece of dark mischief doesn’t result in any sort of consequences for the perpetrator.  I don’t expect an author necessarily to tie up all the loose ends, but I do expect some sort of acknowledgment that a crime was committed, even if perhaps we could consider it to be water under the bridge.  Maybe the author felt that any further explanation would be restating the obvious.  Certainly, in this case, the culprit had probably suffered enough.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

WAKING LIONS by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

The opening to this novel revived old memories of The Bonfire of the Vanities.  However, the hit-and-run accident takes place in Israel, and the victim is an Eritrean immigrant, making this book also a little reminiscent of The Tortilla Curtain.  The driver, Eitan Green, is a neurosurgeon who knows that the victim will die anyway and elects not to turn himself in, despite the fact that his wife is a police detective.  The victim’s wife, Sirkit, decides to exact penance from Green by blackmailing him into treating ill and injured immigrants in a makeshift clinic.  Green carries out this activity without the knowledge of his wife or his superiors at the hospital, but we know that his lies about his after-hours whereabouts will surely eventually catch up with him.  Obviously, Green is no saint, but neither is Sirkit, as we learn more and more about her oppressed life and her not-so-charitable motivations.  These two characters have a love-hate relationship, and their uneasy attraction to one another builds.  Meanwhile, Green’s wife develops an interest in investigating the hit-and-run accident and stirs up even more trouble.  I really liked this book, even though it’s a translation, with all its ethical lapses and sinister undertones.  The author tackles a smattering of hot topics—race, immigration, the illegal drug trade, police brutality, domestic violence—without losing sight of Eitan’s personal struggles.  There were several points in the novel where I thought his deceit was finally going to be revealed, costing him his marriage, his job, and his reputation, but he improbably manages to string everyone along for months.  Things get more than a little crazy at the end, but I really found the outcome nifty and satisfying, in a twisted sort of way.