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.