Sunday, February 28, 2021

THE INTUITIONIST by Colson Whitehead

In this novel there are two competing factions of elevator inspectors—the Empiricists and the Intuitionists.  The Empiricists examine the machinery visually, whereas the Intuitionists draw conclusions based on their experience in the elevator when it is in motion.  This really is a strange world the author has concocted here, with these groups which seem like political parties, influenced by corporations and infiltrated by the mob.  Lila Mae Watson is the only black inspector, and she is in the Intuitionist camp.  She has a perfect record until one day an elevator that she has just inspected crashes in a freefall.  Now the intrigue begins.  Is she being framed by the Empiricists, who currently rule the department, or did she make a catastrophic mistake?  Fortunately, the elevator was unoccupied when it crashed.  Also, a newspaper article describing a black box that will revolutionize “vertical vehicles” is quashed at the last minute, as are the fingers of the journalist.  Lila Mae goes down several rabbit holes in an effort to mend her reputation as well as to find the blueprint for the black box.  This book is supposed to be an allegory about racism, and I get that the Empiricists are a metaphor for people who judge others by their color.  However, I am sure that there is a lot I am missing here, including the implications of elevators rising and falling.  The accelerated pace at which I read this book probably contributed to my not catching everything.  Not that this was a page-turner.  On the contrary, I was just eager to move on to something else.  The downside of rushing through this book is that I paid a price in having to reread some sections in which I missed a critical piece of information.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

IN THE LAND OF THE LIVING by Austin Ratner

Isidore Auberon is a good man who dies too young, leaving behind two young sons and a heartbroken wife.  Leo is the older of the sons and the main subject of this novel.  He is much more bereft than his younger brother Mack, who basically has no memory of his father.  This disparity between the two boys’ grief drives a wedge between them.  Leo struggles with his anger, while striving to live up to his father’s legacy.  I felt that the author tried a little too hard at times to be literary and instead managed to overdramatize Leo’s angst with wordy prose.  Leo is not a particularly likeable character, but he is all we have here, as Mack is not fully fleshed out.  In fact, Mack disappears frequently, just to avoid Leo’s company.   Their mother remarries, and, although Philip is a loving stepfather to the boys, he lacks interest is some activities that Leo and Mac have come to enjoy, such as baseball.  Following his stellar academic performance in high school, Leo enrolls at Yale, treading a convoluted path to get there that sours the whole experience for him.  Honestly, it’s hard to root for a guy who keeps sabotaging his relationships and has allowed grief to define his entire life.  Mack eventually reaches out to Leo and invites him to join him on a road trip in an effort to repair the division between them and restore the camaraderie of their early childhood.  This book just did not command my attention, and the author fails to share with us certain important aspects of Leo’s adult life.  Did he graduate from Yale?  If not, where?  He went to med school, but did he become a doctor?  On finishing this book, I felt that these omissions had some sort of artistic purpose that left me frustrated and disappointed.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

HOMELAND ELEGIES by Ayad Akhtar

Ayad Akhtar blurs the line here between memoir and fiction, and I have no idea which parts of this novel are true.  The writing is superb, and Akhtar gives us a peak into the soul of an American Muslim—born in Staten Island to Pakistani parents—in a post 9/11 Trump world.  Ironically, his father, who once served as Trump’s cardiologist, is a Trump voter and supporter, at least until Trump makes his Charlottesville comments.  The author narrates the book in first person in an almost stream-of-consciousness style, flitting from one spellbinding anecdote to another.  He struggles financially as a writer until he meets and becomes friends with a hedge fund manager who makes the author a millionaire, thanks to some unethical but barely legal investments.  If you are looking for a plot-driven book, this novel is not for you, but the stories are captivating in a dark sort of way, including the author’s bout with syphilis and his father’s malpractice lawsuit.  At its heart, though, this is the story of a man who has never lived anywhere outside the U.S. but is treated as a foreigner because of his skin tone and an unusual name.  He feels like an American less and less, because others don’t perceive him as one.  The “homeland” in the title is definitely the U.S., a country which he loves but which does not universally love him back.  This book makes me feel very WASPish and not in a good way.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

THE SECRETS WE KEPT by Lara Prescott

I read Doctor Zhivago in preparation for reading this novel about author Boris Pasternak.  However, that step really was not necessary.  I did not love Pasternak’s novel, and I enjoyed this one more, but the author tried to do too much here.  I can’t enumerate all of the first-person narrators, including the first-person plural narrator that represented the typing pool at the CIA during the late 1950s.  And while the narration is all over the map, the plot boils down to two storylines.  One is obviously about Pasternak in his Russian dacha and his mistress Olga, who suffers three years in the Gulag on his behalf.  The other story, which is much more engrossing, concerns efforts on the part of other countries to bring Pasternak’s novel into print, while Russian authorities banned it.  Not only was the novel published in translations in Europe, but U.S. agents surreptitiously distributed copies in the original Russian to Russian visitors at the World’s Fair in Brussels.  This particular storyline was fascinating, and I especially enjoyed the chapters in which a not-so-speedy typist, born in the U.S. to Russian parents, is recruited and trained for espionage.  Kate Atkinson’s Transcription is also about a woman in a clerical job becoming a clandestine agent, and it is still by far the better read.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

DOCTOR ZHIVAGO by Boris Pasternak

What’s with Russian authors and characters committing suicide by throwing themselves in front of a train?  In this case, the suicide is that of the title character’s father.  The son, obviously, goes on to become a doctor but has lots of other adventures against the backdrop of the Bolshevik Revolution.  The civil war was extremely confusing to me, trying to keep up with who was fighting for which side, but the Russian names were even more confusing.  Plus, sometimes a character has more than one nickname, and none of these names are remotely similar.  Case in point:  “This was Zlydarikha or Kubarikha, a soldier’s wife who was a cattle healer, a veterinarian, and also, secretly, a witch.”  All that aside, Dr. Zhivago’s first name is Yurii, and he marries his childhood friend Tonia.  However, while serving as a medic during WWI, he meets Lara, a beautiful nurse.  Their relationship is the basis for what is considered to be a great love story, but, actually, their time together is relatively short, interrupted for a while when Yurii is captured by a faction of the Red Army to serve as their medic.  The passion of their relationship certainly does not jump off the page, and that could be due to the era in which the book was written or to flaws in the translation.  I think that the David Lean movie or the miniseries with Keira Knightly would be more up my alley.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

DEAR EDWARD by Ann Napolitano

The Adler family is moving from New York to Los Angeles, but their plane crashes en route.  After the initial jolt that this book delivers, it bogs down a bit.  Twelve-year-old Eddie is the only survivor of the crash, and he goes to live with his mother’s sister and her husband in New Jersey.   His aunt gives his name as Edward for media coverage purposes, and it sticks:  Eddie is the pre-crash boy who basically no longer exists now that his life has been completely torn apart.  This novel alternates between two storylines—the hours of the plane trip itself and the years of Edward’s recovery, both physically and emotionally.  The people in Edward’s post-crash life are almost all compassionate and helpful people, including his therapist and school principal, who have his best interests at heart.  This aspect of the novel seemed almost too saccharine, but it was at times a welcome antidote to the horror of the crash.  I found the cause of the crash terrifying, and I hope that I will have forgotten about this book before I have to fly again.  The chapters that take place during the flight introduce us to a handful of passengers, including Edward’s family, who had way too much living left to do.  Edward’s biggest loss by far is the death of his fifteen-year-old brother, who has left behind a secret girlfriend.  Edward struggles toward normalcy and grapples with how to lead a life that will honor those who died.  The subject matter here dictates that the book be almost unbearably sad, and it is.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

SEVERANCE by Ling Ma

Candace Chen is one of the few New York survivors—so far—of a deadly pandemic caused by a fungus.  This novel has a before-and-after timeline.  In the present, Candace is traveling cross-country with a handful of other young adults, with their fanatically religious leader Bob.  In the pre-pandemic world, Candace is a project manager for Bible production—a job that she does not really like but that she is exceptionally good at.  As her officemates begin to disappear, either abandoning the city where the infrastructure is starting to crumble or succumbing to the Shen Fever, Candace carries on, even after she no longer has any work to do.  Candace is a loner, declining her boyfriend’s invitation to move out west with him, and her aloneness becomes even more striking when the city becomes a ghost town.  In fact, Candace resurrects her photo blog, NY Ghost, and sees a kind of beauty in deserted subway stations and horse carriages with no drivers.  The title of this book seems appropriate in a number of ways.  Candace observes at one point that nostalgia seems to make a person susceptible to the fever.  In that case, she should be fine.  She doesn’t seem to be nostalgic for how things used to be, nor does she have other personal entanglements.  Candace was born in China, as were her now-deceased parents, but she has no family connections there to speak of.  Her severance may be her emotional salvation.