Wednesday, February 27, 2019

THE NINTH HOUR by Alice McDermott

This novel is largely a celebration of nuns, particularly nuns who administer to those who can’t, or won’t, help themselves.  Annie’s husband Jim kills himself after losing his job, leaving Annie in a burned out apartment with a baby on the way.  The nuns put her to work in their laundry after Sally is born.  Sally so admires the nuns she grows up with that she decides to become one herself, but we know that she eventually changes her mind, since the book is narrated by one or more of her offspring.  This novel begins and ends with a death, and not a lot happens in the middle.  There are three big events in this novel:  Jim’s suicide, Sally’s trip to her assigned convent in Chicago and the shock she receives on returning home (one big event, according to me), and the death at the end of the novel, with all of the shenanigans surrounding that death.  I love McDermott’s writing style, but that’s just not enough.  The characters, almost all women, are rather vanilla, although Sally’s mother Annie has a defiant streak that doesn’t manifest itself right away.  Sally, on the other hand, has good intentions, but we really only know her as a solitary child and then a naïve teenager who makes a couple of bad choices.  This book is very readable, but, despite the dramatic and promising beginning, the pace is snail-like.  It contains a lot of references to laundry, starch, and ironing, and I’m sure all of this washing and drying of clothes and linens is some sort of symbol, but I just can’t identify what it is.  Cleansing of sins maybe?  Several commandments are broken here, and the question raised in the novel is whether these transgressions will prohibit the person from getting into heaven.  In at least one case, the transgressor is not penitent.  I’m guessing that’s a showstopper, but I’ll have to ask a Catholic.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

CHARMING BILLY by Alice McDermott

Another novel about a drunken Irishman?  Really?  Fiction writers continue to perpetuate this stereotype, and I keep reading their books.  Shame on me.  Anyway, this novel is a eulogy to Billy Lynch, an alcoholic whose life’s poignant story is actually a lie.  No one actually says that Billy’s loss is what drives him to drink, but everyone brings it up as a possible justification.  The irony is that Billy, when sober, is a delightful, warm, charismatic human being.  He has a job and a long-suffering wife, who frequently has to call Billy’s cousin Dennis in the middle of the night to help her get her sloshed husband to bed.  The real lesson here is that lying to protect someone from humiliation is probably a mistake, especially if the lie gives the victim an excuse to wallow in a mournful mindset like a lost soul in a Shakespearean tragedy.  This ode to Billy is certainly well-written, but Billy’s charm did not shine through for me.  As for his loyal friends, Dennis is a coward for allowing his lie to color Billy’s life for so long.  Friends don’t let friends drive drunk, and friends should not try to shield friends from the truth.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

THE ADDRESS by Fiona Davis

A dual storyline does not hamper the suspense in this novel.  The mystery about what happened in the Dakota apartment building in Manhattan a hundred years ago stumps Bailey, a 30-something woman fresh out of rehab.  She is an interior designer trying to get back on her feet by helping her wealthy “cousin” Melinda revamp her apartment.  Actually, Bailey’s grandfather was a ward of Melinda’s great-grandfather, Theodore Camden, who was an architect involved in the opening of the Dakota.  Bailey stumbles upon some old photos and a knife sheath that call into question everything she knows about her roots.  The backstory is that of Sara Smythe, whose prevention of a tragic accident brings her to the attention of Camden, who is staying in the London hotel where Sara works.  He persuades her to come to New York to work at the Dakota, and the two soon become friends and confidants.  At first, I was partial to Sara’s story versus Bailey’s, but Sara’s becomes a bit bizarre.  Bailey’s storyline defies belief also, but she proves to be less naïve than Sara, who seems bent on repeating the mistakes of her mother.  The writing may not be special, but at least it does not detract from the plot.  Both women characters are fully developed, but the plot is what kept my attention, even if it’s not particularly realistic.  Also, I thought the author had a little trouble with both Theodore Camden and Melinda.  They both seem to be kind and caring until they don’t.  Melinda, in particular, shows her true colors early, tempting a susceptible Bailey with drugs and drink.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

ANOTHER BROOKLYN by Jacquelyn Woodson

August moves with her father and younger brother from Tennessee to Brooklyn as a young girl in the 1970s.  She becomes close friends with three other girls there:  Sylvia, who aspires to be a lawyer; Gigi, a budding actress; and Angela, a gifted dancer.  Now a young woman, August reflects on the fates of her three friends when she encounters Sylvia on the subway.  She notes that her motherless situation could have turned out much differently, but her father is a decent man and sends her to a therapist, who helps her cope with the loss of her mother.  Her friends are not so lucky, and August remembers that her mother taught her never to trust women, and, in fact, several mothers in this novel fail their daughters in a variety of ways.  There are several heartbreaking moments, but August tells her story in a clear-eyed, lyrical fashion, and I felt that this very short novel’s overall message was a message of strength.  August’s biggest failing is that she remains in denial even when facing evidence of tragic events, but the rose-colored glasses eventually have to come off.  That’s the essence of growing up.  I loved this character and this book.  It’s a much better novel about girl power than The Power.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

THE POWER by Naomi Alderman

The premise of this novel is fascinating; unfortunately, the novel itself is not.  The premise is that a genetic mutation gives women a skein of electrical power alongside their collarbone.  This anatomical gift allows them to do essentially what electric eels do:  deliver an electric shock to their victims.  In this case, most of the victims are men, so that a mind-bending flip of gender inequality is in progress.  The women are now able to take over the world by wielding this new-found power.  Again, the premise is very thought-provoking, but the novel is very disjointed and bounces around between narrators and venues.  The narrators are Margot, an ambitious politician; Jocelyn, Margot’s daughter, who has a deformity in her skein; Allie, an abused foster child who starts a religious sect; Roxy, who possesses great physical power but whose family I could not quite figure out; and Tunde, a male Nigerian photo-journalist.  The book basically takes the position that if women ruled the world, we might be in even bigger trouble than we are now.  Many of the women are cruel to an unimaginable degree and things get wildly out of hand.  Do the women commit acts of atrocity in rebellion against their previous second-rate citizenship, or are they just drunk on power and do horrible things because they can?  Maybe the author explains their motivation, but I just didn’t get it.  Lastly, the author frames the book as a manuscript of a historical novel written 5000 years in the future.  What?  Now, that’s a long time to project that we still have books.