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 PrĂ­o’s before him, enabled the Castro brothers to attract so many young men to their cause, including a few Americans. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2019


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


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.