Friday, November 3, 2017

Reading (or Posting) Ennui

As I sit here looking at the (rather short) list of books I read in October, I really have very little to say about any of them. Whether it's because I didn't read anything I truly liked for an entire month, I'm suffering from post-vacation fatigue (aren't vacations supposed to be restful?), or I don't want to post any more, I don't know. But I'm just going to list the books here and then contemplate whether to continue the blog, once again change direction, or gracefully retire from blogging.

The Girl Before, by J.P. Delaney
The Three, by Sarah Lotz
Celine, by Peter Heller
Please Don't Tell, by Elizabeth Adler
Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson
The Graybar Hotel, by Curtis Dawkins
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelous
The Girl with Seven Names, by Hyeonseo Lee
Gift from the Sea, by Anne Morrow Lindberg

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Starting Serious Fall Reading

I don't think my fall reading is, in fact, more serious than my summer reading, but perhaps suggesting that it is will guilt me into abandoning mysteries (and bad memoirs!) and focusing on works of serious literary merit. Yeah, right. . .

Mysteries
Red Ribbons, by Louise Phillips
Y Is for Yesterday, by Sue Grafton
Proof of Life, by J.A. Jance
Boar Island, by Nevada Barr
The 14th Colony, by Steve Berry

Red Ribbons was the first in a series that now has additional numbers. It features Dr. Kate Pearson, a psychologist and profiler who is brought into what appears to be a case involving serial murder of young girls. The story is told from Kate's perspective, as well as those of the killer (quite creepily portrayed) and a woman who has been in a mental hospital for more than a decade because she is believed to have killed her daughter. Even the noncriminal characters are not very sympathetic, perhaps because they do so many stupid things. Doubt I will give book 2 of the series a try.

Y Is for Yesterday (Kinsey Milhone) and Proof of Life (J.P. Beaumont) are the latest titles in long-running series. Both are okay but not the best of their respective series--still better than most series after 20 or so books! Boar Island is also part of a lengthy series (Anna Pigeon), but not one that I have regularly read. I read a couple of the early titles in the series, set in different national parks, but didn't really care for them; I just picked this one up because I couldn't find anything else on Overdrive--and I didn't care for it either.

I didn't care too much for The 14th Colony either (sometimes I'm just hard to please), but it did seem relevant to current events, since it deals with Russian interference in U.S. politics (interference may be too tame a word for what happens in the book, but I'm going with it anyway) and questions having to do with the 20th Amendment and succession in the event of a mass murder at inauguration. Although the 25th Amendment would be even more relevant (perhaps wishful thinking), the constitutional twist was interesting to me, as my sister, who mentioned the book to me, thought it might be.

Fiction
Moshi, Moshi, by Banana Yoshimoto
The Chalk Artist, by Allegra Goodman
Longbourn, by Jo Baker
Class Mom, by Laurie Gelman
New People, by Danzy Senna
The Refugees, by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Love and Other Consolation Prizes, by Jamie Ford
And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer, by Fredrik Backman

The set-up for Moshi, Moshi is intriguing: Yoshie is a 20-something whose musician father has died in an apparent suicide pact with a mysterious woman. She struggles to deal with her grief and the shocking circumstances, which to her are unbelievable. As Yoshie finds some comfort in learning the restaurant business and moves out of her parents' upscale condo, she comes home one day to find that her mother has moved in with her. She acquiesces with this new living situation, recognizing that her mother is struggling as well, and she tentatively builds a relationship as she investigates the woman who died with her father. I didn't find the book's ending entirely satisfying, I take responsibility for not fully understanding the Japanese perspective.

The Chalk Artist is a love story set among millennials in a video game world. The main characters are Collin, the title character whose life seems as aimless as you might expect from someone whose medium is transitory, and Nina, an inadequately prepared high school teacher struggling to reach her students. Nina's father also happens to be the head of a cutting-edge video game company and she decides to "help" Collin by getting him a job at her father's company. Disillusionment, a break-up, and way too much description of video games ensue. Disappointing.

Also disappointing was Longbourn, about which I had recently read some very positive comments. Baker tells the story of servants at the Bennett family home (in case you are like my older son, who claims Pride and Prejudice ruined his reading life, these are the people in P&P). It was eye-opening to read about the amount of work that went in to keeping such a household going but the story made even the most far-fetched soap opera twists of Downton Abbey seem believable.

Satirical treatments of millennial and Gen X parents are popular of late, and Class Mom is another entry in that vein. As her third, much younger child enters kindergarten, Jen Dixon isn't about to be the perfect class mom that the other parents expect. The book offers some laughs but lacks both the bite and the warmth of, say, Liane Moriarty's Big Little Lies.

As the mother of biracial children, I have found Danzy Senna's exploration of related issues in Caucasia and You Are Free both uncomfortable and insightful. Consequently, I was looking forward to New People. and found that the discomfort outweighed the insight. At the center of the book are Maria and Khalil, an engaged couple who met at Stanford and were "the same shade of beige." They now live in New York, where Khalil is busy with professional concerns while Maria works on her dissertation about music in Jonestown. They have been chosen to be among the subjects of a documentary on racially ambiguous people; meanwhile, plans for their wedding are proceeding as Maria tries to convince herself that good sex isn't so important and she can tolerate Khalil's dreams for their future, despite their being antithetical to her notions of the life she wants. While all of this is happening, Maria is also stalking a poet and getting into increasingly strange and potentially dangerous situations. Is her breakdown caused by the expectations placed on a woman of her background, her struggles to figure out who she is, racially and intellectually, or her bad decisions? I don't know--and, frankly, I care more about the injustice to Khalil, which I doubt is what Senna intended.

The Refugees is a collection of eight short stories by Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen, The stories depict the lives of refugees from Vietnam, including struggles unique to their experience and universal challenges. A woman, a ghostwriter of autobiographies about scandalous lives, is haunted by the ghost of her brother, who died in the escape (by boat) from Vietnam. Another woman tries to deal with her professor-husband's dementia, as he mistakes her for someone she gradually surmises was the real love of his life. A man has two sets of children--one of which escaped to the United States with their mother, the others, to whom he gives the same names as the first set, lives in Vietnam. When the American daughter Phuong visits the Vietnamese daughter Phuong, secrets will out. An orphaned boy is adopted by a gay couple in San Francisco, experiencing multifaceted culture shock. Even this short story skeptic found these stories evocative and well worth reading.

At the heart of Love and Other Consolation Prizes is a shocking story--the raffling of a Chinese immigrant orphan at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition held in Seattle in 1909. That boy--Ernest Young--is recalling the events that led to and followed from that moment as Seattle celebrates another World's Fair in 1962. Ford weaves in details about the experience of coming to the United States in steerage, working in the red light district, the crusade against prostitution, and much more as he weaves a story of a young man who loves two girls and what happens when he chooses one. An enjoyable read.

Since And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer is a novella, the title seems overly long, but the work is a sweet reflection on the relationship between a boy and his widowed grandfather as the grandfather's mind slowly deteriorates. I haven't read any of Backman's much-hyped longer works, but this lovely piece convinced me that I should.

Science Fiction/Fantasy
Anathem, by Neal Stephenson

Anathem is my second book by Neal Stephenson, an author who creates complex worlds populated by interesting characters. His books are difficult to synopsize, but this one is about a young man, Fraa Erasmas, who lives in a concent, similar to a monastery, but for mathematicians rather than the religious. His generally peaceful life comes to a crashing halt when the world (not Earth) is threatened by interplanetary forces. Some parts of the book were a little too philosophical and mathematical for me, and I somewhat regretted that I was listening to it rather than reading it, since Stephenson engages in a lot of word play that I felt I would have appreciated more in print. Nonetheless, I found the book entertaining.


Drama
Murder in the Cathedral, by T.S. Eliot

Murder in the Cathedral is a classic, a dramatization in verse of the assassination of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Beckett. To be honest (and I'm 100% sure the problem is mine and not Eliot's), I found it difficult, although it started to make more sense when I read it aloud.

Nonfiction
God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by Christopher Hitchens
It's Always Something, by Gilda Radner
Book of Days, by Emily Fox Gordon

Christopher Hitchens' detailed argument against religion seems, to me, to be a book without an audience. Those who agree with him do not need his close reading of texts and analysis of the ways in which religion, a man-made phenomenon has been destructive in human history. Those who disagree with him will be unmoved by his arguments--faith is unlikely to be shaken by logic, reasoning, or science. Without even mentioning in which camp I fall, I found the book tedious.

Gilda Radner was a brilliant comedian, and her book is sometimes funny. But mostly it is terribly sad description of her illness, her treatment, her relationships with various doctors as well as with her husband, and her efforts to help others through the Wellness Community. Knowing that she died about a month after recording the audio version of the book (which I listened to), her effort to be optimistic is truly heart-breaking.

Last month I read several memoirs that were well worth the time. This month, I encountered a memoir that reaffirmed for me while I have traditionally had little respect for the genre and its writers. Emily Fox Gordon spent her early adult years apparently doing very little, which she regarded as preparation for finding her metier as a memoirist (she calls her works "personal essays," according to her an essentially modest form compared to the grandiosity of memoir--yet she refers to herself as a memoirist). To me, that would seem to give a person little to write about, but this doesn't stop Gordon. I found her "personal essays" empty of interesting or meaningful content and found myself highly annoyed by her condescending attitude. She found herself a faculty wife by default--but she was a faculty wife because she was married to a professor, just like all faculty wives (or spouses). Because she didn't want to think of herself as a faculty wife does not exempt her from that descriptor. Her husband is a philosopher, long possessed of a university appointment and widely published (by her own description)--yet she dismisses him as not being a scholar. Perhaps most damning (for me) is her statement that "For the essay, the equivalent of plot and characterization is thought." Please!! Good fiction requires so much more thought than bad memoir, I can't even stand it.

Pick of the Litter: The Refugees (somehow I feel it's wrong to pick a brief novella, but And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer was wonderful)

Favorite Passages

We shared a passion for words, but I preferred the silence of writing while she loved to talk.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Refugees

If life is a process of accumulating more and more things you simply can’t bring yourself to make peace with, well, my feelings about this are vast and deep enough for an entire lifetime’s worth of hang-ups.


Banana Yoshimoto, Moshi Moshi

That's why we get the chance to spoil our grandchildren, because by doing that we're apologizing to our children. 

Fredrik Backman, And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer


Saturday, September 2, 2017

"My Profanity Has an Aesthetic"

"My profanity has an aesthetic," from Sherman Alexie's excellent memoir, may be my favorite line of the year. I actually read several memoirs that I found interesting in August, plus some very good fiction and a couple of books recommended by my granddaughter.

Mysteries

Bone Box, by Faye Kellerman
Bury the Lead, by David Rosenfelt
Do Not Become Alarmed, by Maile Malloy
Her Every Fear, by Peter Swanson

Bone Box is the most interesting book in the series since Faye Kellerman moved Peter and Rina Decker to New York. Not great--but readable.

I hadn't read any of David Rosenfelt's books about attorney Andy Carpenter before, but somehow I did not enjoy the combination of goofy humor and mutilated bodies. Maybe I'm losing my sense of humor in my old age, but I won't be reading any more of the series.

Do Not Become Alarmed should perhaps not be in the mysteries section, as a number of reviews have treated it as serious fiction. However, I could not take the story of three families on vacation in Nicaragua seriously. The actions of the parents (particularly the mothers) seem unrealistic--I'm not saying that it's impossible for parents and children to become separated, it just seems unlikely to happen as described here. Nor do the experiences of the children after they drift down river and become separated from their mothers seem believable to me. A disappointment.

If your every fear revolves around the plethora of creepy men in the world, then don't read Her Every Fear because you'll never sleep again. The protagonist, Englishwoman Kate, has survived an attack by a crazed ex-boyfriend and is now venturing back into the world by trading apartments for six months with her cousin Corbin, a Bostonian. Corbin's life, it turns out, is ground zero for problematic men--Peter Swanson makes the situation seem unendurable. Men . . .

Fiction
Mrs. Fletcher, by Tom Perrotta
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
Standard Deviation, by Katherine Heiny
The Wide Circumference of Love, by Marita Golden
Barkskins, by Annie Proulx

Tom Perrotta has a gift for creating characters who seem average but have some dark or bizarre secret--and he puts it to good use in Mrs. Fletcher, whose title character seems like a typical suburban divorcee, overmothering her only child as he heads off to college. But, in her newly empty nest, she becomes addicted to Internet porn and becomes involved in a potentially inappropriate relationship with an employee at the senior center she directs. Meanwhile her son is struggling at college, both academically and socially. The story kept me interested and ended with a twist that really did surprise. Recommended.

I hadn't read Jane Eyre since my teen years and I was surprised at how much I had forgotten--pretty much everything before Jane arrived at Thornfield Hall. I actually enjoyed that part of this classic novel, but once she got to Thornfield, despite Jane's alleged proto-feminist character, I found the novel's gothic turn less than compelling. I guess I understand why it's a classic, but there won't ever be a third reading for me.

Standard Deviation is an interesting book. The main character is middle-aged Graham, who finds himself wondering why he divorced his first wife Elspeth, so much better suited to his nature, to marry Audra, a younger, irrepressible, and seemingly shallow woman. And yet, Audra is also the dedicated mother of a challenging son on the spectrum, a role she handles admirably. It's an interesting and entertaining look at what makes marriage work, what constitutes a "good" person, and more. Occasionally, the characters are annoying, but overall I enjoyed the book.

My sister recommended The Wide Circumference of Love, an exploration of a successful African American couple's experience with the husband Gregory's Alzheimer's disease. Although I found the writing a bit stilted, I thought it was a good exploration of the effects of this terrible disease on wife Diane and the couple's two adult children, Lauren and Sean. I also enjoyed the character of the milliner who sets her sights on Gregory when Diane moves him to a memory care facility--she knows what she wants and she gets it, creating an even more painful situation for Diane.

Barkskins . . .  what to say about this book that made many "best of" lists in 2016? It's an epic--Proulx traces two families, both descended from indentured French immigrants to North America, from the late 18th century to the 21st century. Her goal seems to be political--to demonstrate the short-sighted use of the continent's forests, primarily by white settlers. Fine--I salute the research Proulx must have done to gain the encyclopedic knowledge of the forest over centuries. But I found the book boring and choppy--just as you might get interested in a character's story, Proulx jumped to another person, location, and (sometimes) time. Sadly, not recommended.

Young Adult

Big Bad Detective Agency, by Bruce Hale
Fantastic Mr. Fox, by Roald Dahl

These two books were both recommended by my granddaughter, and they were both amusing animal tales. Big Bad Detective Agency is similar to the fractured fairy tales that have been written for younger readers--it was silly fun, but I hope Hale doesn't plan to make it a series; I don't think the conceits he uses could stand up to repetition. Roald Dahl, of course, is a master, and Fantastic Mr. Fox is great fun.

Nonfiction

The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank
You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, by Sherman Alexie
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, by Roxane Gay
The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying, by Nina Riggs

I can't believe I had never read Anne Frank's diary, but I hadn't. What I found so refreshing about it was not her bravery or optimism in the face of dire circumstances, but the fact that she was really just a girl, exploring her emerging sexuality, struggling with living in close quarters with people who were annoying her (particularly her mother), and questioning what her future might hold. Obviously a classic.

You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, Sherman Alexie's recent memoir, comprised of an equal number of poems and prose pieces, is filled with grief, rage, and humor. There are sections of the book that are painful to read--when, for example, he compares the treatment meted out to Indian children by his second-grade teacher to the torture practiced at Abu Ghraib or when he mourns the fact that his mother, believing English would be his most powerful tool, did not teach him their native language, which he regrets and yet acknowledges was his mother's way of protecting him and his siblings from a grave responsibility.  He argues convincingly for a museum of the Native American genocide, pointing out how fond Americans are of Holocaust museums and memorials while not acknowledging our own sings. Alexie's mother quilted, and the book feels like a quilt, put together of many pieces, sometimes repeating ("Great pain is repetitive. Grief is repetitive"). Alexie's work isn't for everyone, but I loved this book.

Also filled with pain is Hunger, by Roxane Gay. If you aren't familiar with Gay's work, she is a brilliant writer of fiction and essays who is also a very large woman--both tall and obese. She was gang-raped as a child and ate to create a shell that would protect her, make her safe. I think most women can understand this, even if they do not share Gay's experience. What was eye-opening to me, probably because I had never stopped to think about it, was the all-encompassing pain that her body has caused her--pain that is physical and emotional/psychological. She describes humiliating situations that most people cannot even imagine. Reading the book is emotionally exhausting--I several times wished it was shorter--but I feel the better for having read it.

And, to round out the painful memoir trifecta, we have The Bright Hour, the surprisingly joyful story of Nina Riggs's diagnosis with terminal cancer when she was in her late 30s and the mother of two young children. The great-great-great granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Riggs brings the writings of the transcendentalist--and Montaigne, her favorite philosopher--to bear on her dilemma: how to live well when one will not live long. Of course, The Bright Hour is sad, but it's also quite lovely.

Pick of the Litter: You Don't Have to Say You Love Me

Favorite Passages:

It took me a long time, but I prefer “victim” to “survivor” now. I don’t want to diminish the gravity of what happened. I don’t want to pretend I’m on some triumphant, uplifting journey. I don’t want to pretend that everything is okay. I’m living with what happened, moving forward without forgetting, moving forward without pretending I am unscarred.


 --Roxane Gay, Hunger

My profanity has an aesthetic.

This is who I am. This is who I have always been. I am in pain. I am always in pain. But I always find my way to the story. And I always find my way home.

--Sherman Alexie, You Don't Have to Say You Love Me (and I could have picked many other passages)

Sunday, July 30, 2017

A Bit of a Mystery Binge

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you know that I occasionally go on mystery-reading binges . . . and it's not usually rewarding, as this month once again proves. In fact, the month's reading was only redeemed by Al Franken's latest. Hoping for a better month in August!

Mysteries

Death Match, by Lincoln Child
Most Wanted, by Lisa Scottoline
Memory Man, by David Baldacci
Killer Look, by Linda Fairstein
Ill Will, by Dan Chaon
He Said/She Said, by Erin Kelly
Heartbreak Hotel, by Jonathan Kellerman
Late Show, by Michael Connolly

There's not one of these books I would actually recommend. Several were especially terrible or annoying but none are worth a synopsis.

Fiction

Upstate, by Kalisha Buckhanon
Men Without Women, by Haruki Murakami
Never Again So Close, by Claudia Serrano
The Vegetarian, by Han Kang

Upstate was an interesting book that I listened to because I couldn't find anything else I wanted on Overdrive. It's an epistolary novel featuring letters between two teenagers--Antonio, who is in jail, accused of killing his father, and his girlfriend Natasha, who believes he will be acquitted and their lives will return to normal. After Antonio's conviction, their lives diverge--Natasha goes to college and then to law school--but they continue writing to each other. Some of the letters are rather crude (remember, they're teenagers in love), but the emotion feels authentic and the ending is hopeful. The book is categorized as YA, but I would say it's only suitable for older teenagers. Not a great book, but I didn't kick myself for the time spent reading it (as I did with the mysteries!!).

Like the Hemingway work of the same name, Men Without Women is a collection of short stories. Murakami's men are not only without women--they seem to be without the ability to build connections. Given those characteristics, loneliness is a predominant theme in the collection. Some of the men reach out in strange ways--one befriends his late wife's last lover, while another tries to convince a friend to date the girl he likes. Characters disappear--a plastic surgeon essentially starves himself because he is lovesick, a bartender is told to leave town and does. In perhaps the most unusual story, Gregor Samsa (of Kafka's Metamorphosis) returns to human form in the midst of political upheaval in Prague. I certainly did not love this collection (it takes a lot for me to love a short story collection), but I found it engaging.

Never Again So Close was one of the free book options from Amazon Prime some months ago. It's the story of a young writer Antonia who gets involved with an older, more sophisticated and detached man named Vittorio. Her love causes her to put her own work on hold in a doomed attempt to build a long-lasting relationship with Vittorio. Their inevitably unhappy story is interspersed with excerpts from Antonia's book about a young girl with Down's syndrome and vignettes about Antonio baking. Although the author's writing (and the translation) is often lovely and poetic, overall the book fell flat--perhaps because I am jaded and wanted to yell at Antonia "Wise up!"

The Vegetarian was written more than a decade ago but was just released in English in 2016. It appeared on several "Best of 2016" lists; despite being perhaps the only Korean novel I have ever read, it wouldn't even appear on my "Best Korean Novels" list. It's the story of how people react when a woman decides to stop eating meat because of a dream; the book is narrated by her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister. It's bizarre and sometimes graphic and distasteful. The section narrated by her brother-in-law is most disturbing; he is an artist who becomes obsessed with painting the woman's body and then filming her having sex. If I were able to glean some meaning from the book, I would have liked it better, but I somehow missed the message, or the message was just not for me (the NYT reviewer called it a "death-affirming" book). So not recommended.

Nonfiction

Becoming Grandma, by Lesley Stahl
Giant of the Senate, by Al Franken

Lesley Stahl became a grandmother, loved it, and, as a journalist, decided to cover grandparenthood as a story. She recounts her own experiences and draws "lessons" from them, but also interviews many other grandparents and examines the research on grandparenting. To someone who also loves being a grandmother, the book is somewhat interesting but not terribly insightful.

For anyone who has wondered how and why Al Franken became so serious and unfunny after his election to the Senate--his staff made him do it! Most of Giant of the Senate focuses on his decision to run, the campaign and disputed election, and his service in the Senate--it's educational for us noninsiders and also funny. My favorite chapter is the one devoted to Ted Cruz, who Franken claims to like more than most of their Senate colleagues do--and Franken hates Cruz, for what seem to be good reasons: he's a narcissistic liar who is impossible to work with. Franken comes across as a really smart guy, who's also a good man (and funny). Recommended!

Pick of the Litter: Giant of the Senate, by Al Franken

Favorite Passages:

At one time I believed that love was a gift. Instead, you pay for everything, piece by piece.

Claudia Serrano, Never Again So Close

. . . if we don't start caring about whether people tell the truth or not, it's going to be literally impossible to restore anything approaching a reasonable political discourse. Politicians have always shaded the truth. But if you can say something that is provably false, and no one cares, then you can't have a real debate about anything.

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate

Friday, July 28, 2017

What Is Novel Conversations Reading?

Working the Library Friends booth at the Farmer's Market with two friends from the old book group, I realized I hadn't checked out or posted their slate for the upcoming months. So here it is:


August - Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel by Robin Sloan
September - The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes 
October - Dark Matters by Blake Crouch (OBOB)
November - The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
December - No meeting
January - Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Shaking It Up in June

June's reading got off to an unusual start for me, with a violent Western and a zombie novel (I'm so out of it zombie-wise I didn't even realize it was a zombie novel until I was almost done). Luckily, it ended on a more positive note . . . but it took awhile.

Mystery

Pretty Baby, by Mary Kubica

Pretty Baby is more of a thriller than a mystery. Social worker Heidi sees an apparently homeless teenage girl and her baby on the train and becomes concerned. After a few meetings, she invites Willow (the girl) and Ruby (her baby) to stay at her home. Heidi's husband Chris and daughter Heidi are not excited, and Heidi's subsequent behavior justifies their hesitation, as she becomes obsessed with the baby. As one might expect, Willow has had some very difficult times; although Kubica likely thinks we will not expect other aspects of the denouement, some of the intended surprises are completely predictable. Mediocre at best.

Fiction

Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy
Zone One,by Colson Whitehead
The Boat Rocker, by Ha Jin
Everybody's Fool, by Richard Russo
The Mothers, by Brit Bennett
Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Eastbaum
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut
A House Among the Trees, by Julia Glass

Blood Meridian is the story of an unnamed teenager who travels the borderlands in 1849-1850 with the notorious Glanton gang. I could not discern any actual plot--just a series of violent episodes. When I told my son the literary scholar that I hated the book and thought the persistent violence became boring, he made the case that the writing is so lyrical that the plot and characterizations don't matter--it's all about the beauty of the language. I was not convinced.

Said son somehow knew when I told him I was reading a book titled Zone One that it was a zombie novel, something I had not realized. I thought it was a post-apocalyptic story in which people ate each other because they were starving. Yes, sometimes I am clueless. It is a post-apocalyptic story--the world has been ravaged by disease, and now Buffalo (the new government) is marketing areas as safe. But protagonist Mark Spitz knows this is not true, as he is a "sweeper," working to clean out Zone One in Manhattan to make it safe for rehabitation. Whitehead, better known for his 2016 The Underground Railroad (my favorite book of the year), uses the zombie apocalype genre to satirize 21st-century American life, which (I assume--since I've never read another zombie book) elevates Zone One above other zombie books. Worth reading--but it won't be on my best of 2016 list.

The Boat Rocker was another book that made me feel somewhat dumb, as I constantly felt that I needed to know more about publishing in China to understand the story (I kept wondering if it was intended as satire or a serious story, suggesting I have some shortcomings as a Ha Jin reader). The book's protagonist is Chinese expatriate (he's just become a U.S. citizen, which has given him a sense of some security) Feng Danlin, who is a reporter with a news agency that serves the Chinese diaspora. When his boss assigns him a story involving his ex-wife, Yan Haili, he is concerned--and rightly it turns out--that this may be a bad idea. Haili, who aspires to be a novelist but is a terrible writer, is conspiring with the Chinese government and high-placed publishers in China to capitalize on 9/11 to create a bestseller (it's more complicated, but I'll leave it at that). Danlin's reporting draws him into conflict with powerful interests in China, and the outcome is not positive. If you're interested in China and/or journalism, worth your time. Otherwise, I'd stay away.

Everybody's Fool is a sequel to Richard Russo's Nobody's Fool, which, nearly 25 years ago, introduced readers to Sully Sullivan and North Bath. Sully is again a character, but less central; the sequel gives greater attention to Doug Raymer, a butt of many of Sully's pranks in Nobody's Fool, but now the chief of police. This is vintage Russo, with a bit of the paranormal (Doug has a voice in his head that sometimes takes over his actions and speech) thrown in. The ending surprised me with its relentless positivity. A fun read but not one that will change your life.

Several reviewers had The Mothers in their lists of best books of 2016, but I had been avoiding it because I had seen it described as an "anti-abortion screed." Well, I finally got around to reading it, and I did not find it such. It's the story of a teenage couple, Nadia and Luke, and Nadia's best friend Aubrey. Nadia becomes pregnant and has an abortion--but that's only one piece of the story. Yes, the decision does bother Luke, a pastor's son, as he grows older, but Nadia never wavers from her belief that it was the right decision. The story is about friendship, betrayal, relationships with parents, and finding one's true path in life. The Mothers of the title are a group of older "church ladies," who act as a Greek chorus in the narration--this trope could have been overdone, but Bennett employs it skillfully, allowing it to convey the judgment being passed on the teens. I ended up liking The Mothers quite a bit.

The same cannot be said of Hausfrau, which is the story of an American woman, Anna, who is living in the Zurich suburbs with her rather repressive Swiss husband and three children (the youngest of whom is not the husband's). Anna feels isolated and seems to use affairs as an antidote to that isolation. In addition to the current narrative, we get flashbacks to earlier times in her life and glimpses into her therapy sessions. It's hard to like a book with such a sullen main character who makes idiotic decisions; by the end, we recognize that the author wants us to draw parallels with Anna Karenina, but the similarities are only on the surface. Not recommended.

Station Eleven shares with Zone One the premise that disease has brought the world's institutions to a halt--but the similarity ends there. Survivors in Station Eleven are working to rebuild--one community develops in an airport; another, nomadic, group brings Shakespeare and classical music to small settlements; a charismatic leader forms a cult with nefarious goals; a former paparazzo training to be an EMT when the plague hit becomes the doctor in a settlement.  Unbeknownst to them, members of each of these communities are connected through their past relationship with an actor who died on the first day of the plague (although, ironically, he died of a heart attack); two of the central characters share an additional link in their devotion to a comic book drawn by the actor's first wife. The book is about the nature of humanity and how culture and relationships are essential to meaningful human survival. The author does not tie the characters neatly in the end (for the most part, they never discover their connections); in fact, she does not create a neat ending at all and the book is the better for it. Definitely recommended.

Over the past several years, I've been trying to read Kurt Vonnegut's work, something I somehow missed out on in my youth. Breakfast of Champions is the story of two men on a collision course: Dwayne Hoover, a deranged and wealthy car dealer in Indiana, and Kilgore Trout, a science fiction writer whose only success has been due to pornography publishers including his stories in their works as a vehicle for nude pictures. Part of the book is the story of Hoover's descent into madness. The other is Trout's hitchhiking trip to appear at an art convention in Hoover's hometown. When they meet, Hoover becomes convinced that one of Trout's novels, in which the Creator tells the reader he is the only person with free will on Earth, is true and goes on a rampage around his hometown. Vonnegut places himself in the book as the author, explaining why he made certain decisions. As usual, the tone is satirical; while I appreciated the satire of the wealthy, environmental destruction, and race relations, I must be getting old because I found Vonnegut's style rather gross. Ergo, I can't say I loved the book.

I'm a fan of Julia Glass and A House Among the Trees did not disappoint. The book has three narrators: Tommy Daulair, the assistant to famed children's author Mort Lear, who has recently died, leaving her in charge of his estate (Lear, who reportedly was inspired by Maurice Sendak, is very much a major character in the book); Nick Greene, the actor who will play Mort in a movie about his life and is trying to get to know Mort post-mortem; and Merry Galarza, a recently divorced museum director who thought Mort's estate would be left to her museum and is consequently in a tailspin. Glass weaves their stories together skilfully, moving in time and space without ever losing the reader. While the book explores many topical issues--AIDS, trends in children's literature, single parenthood, child abuse, the role of art and how it is created, and more--to me it's most essentially about the search for home. Highly recommended.

Nonfiction:

Molly on the Range, by Molly Yeh
The Nine, by Jeffrey Toobin

Molly on the Range is a memoir/cookbook combination based on a blog--no, not a new idea. However, Molly Yeh is immensely likable and her story of moving from suburban Chicago to New York City (to attend Juilliard) and then to a beet farm on the North Dakota-Minnesota border is rather charming. But, sadly, I didn't find many of her recipes appealing. So I'm glad I read the book and equally glad I didn't buy it.

I'm a little late getting to The  Nine, which came out in 2007. It is a look behind the scenes at the Supreme Court, focusing primarily on what might be considered the Sandra Day O'Connor years. Among the interesting topics Toobin, a staff writer at The New Yorker, covers are the processes of nominating justices (especially in the Clinton and GW Bush administrations), the factors that kept the Court a moderate organization despite the efforts of conservatives to change its nature (this, Toobin makes clear, began to change with the appointments of Roberts and Alito), and how the process of building a majority occurs. Of course, the portrayals of the justices are also interesting--I was perversely happy to read that Scalia was a jerk disliked by his colleagues. I was also surprised to read that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was quiet and not very engaged with the other justices--we have all come to see her as more fierce, and perhaps that's a post-Roberts development. Definitely worth reading.

Pick of the Litter: A House Among the Trees and Station Eleven

Favorite Passages:

There were one quadrillion nations in the Universe, but [the United States] was the only one with a national anthem which was gibberish sprinkled with question marks.

Not even the President of the United States knew what that was all about. It was as though the country were saying to its citizens, "in nonsense is strength."

Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

First we only want to be seen, but once we're seen, that's not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered.

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven



Sunday, June 4, 2017

Anything Is Possible in May

Anything Is Possible, Elizabeth Strout's new book is a gem, but happily it wasn't the only good book I read in May.

Mysteries
A Rule Against Murder, by Louise Penny
The Brutal Telling, by Louise Penny
Golden Prey, by John Sandford
Good Behavior, by Blake Crouch
Red Mist, by Patricia Cornwell
Flesh and Blood, by Patricia Cornwell
Last Chance Olive Ranch, by Susan Wittig Albert

Since I read the first one, I have been less than enthralled with the Inspector Gamache series; however, I keep reading them, hoping they'll grow on me (I have friends who enjoy them, so . . .). After reading two this month, I think I can say with finality that I'm through. A Rule Against Murder is at least set somewhere other than in Three Pines (though one of the couples from the village is important to the story), but the change of scenery didn't save the book for me.

In Golden Prey, Lucas Davenport has yet another new job, as a U.S. Marshall with no set assignment (in other words, he can pick cool cases--what a set-up for an author!). The case here isn't really a mystery because we know who the bad guys are--the book is more of an extended chase scene broken up with gun battles. It's also an obvious set-up for the next book. Not my favorite.

If you enjoyed the Good Behavior series on TNT, you will find the book of the same name interesting. It's a collection of three novellas about Letty Dobesh, recently paroled from prison (and played extremely elegantly in the TV series by Michelle Dockery, formerly Lady Mary on Downton Abbey). The collection also includes commentary by Blake Crouch on how the TV show developed from the stories, why certain aspects of the characters in the stories were changed/retained in the series, and so on. The commentary is almost more interesting than the stories--I wished for more of it!

I took a break of several years from Patricia Cornwell but have recently picked up several of her Scarpetta books and found them less annoying than previously. Still, when Benton says to Kay near the end of Flesh and Blood, "You're the most perfect person I know," I groaned because Cornwell's admiration of her own character is what drove me away from the series in the first place. Cornwell can create an intricate and intriguing plot, but her characters are wearying (and, sadly, when I read a short book featuring a new character, I disliked it intensely). Once again, done with Kay for awhile!

Sadly, I may also have to be done with China Bayles, who seems to be getting dumber and dumber with each succeeding book.  Last Chance Olive Ranch is really two stories, one involving China at an olive ranch where she and Ruby are to offer a class, the other involving China's husband Mike McQuaid, who is trying to recapture an escaped convict who is engaged in a murderous revenge-motivated rampage. I found the China story ridiculous and was irritated by McQuaid's consternation when he learned his son Brian was living with a black woman. Did he vote for Trump or does he live in 2017? Geez.

Fiction
The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
Anything Is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout
Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, by Hannah Tinti
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson

The Book Thief has an unusual narrator--Death. While many reviewers have pointed to this device as particularly effective, but the setting--Germany before and during World War II--and circumstances of the plot made the theme of mortality all too clear and the narrative device somewhat pretentious (IMHO). The other prominent theme is the significance of language, reading, and writing. The central character of the book is Liesel Meminger, whose younger brother dies as their mother is taking them to live with foster parents in the small town Molching, near Munich. At first Liesel doesn't like her foster parents, Hans and Rosa, but Hans gradually wins her over, in part by helping her to read a book she stole, The Gravedigger's Handbook. Rosa's story is also shaped by her friend Rudy and Max, a Jewish man her foster parents' hide. The Book Thief is a tribute to the power of story and love--and I'm glad I finally read it.

In Anything Is Possible, Elizabeth Strout returns to the form she used to such great effect in her award-winning Olive Kitteridge: a collection of stories about characters with some connection to one person, in this case Lucy Barton, the protagonist of Strout's last novel. Barton is less present in most of the stories than Olive Kitteridge was, though it's clear that she is somewhat symbolic as the one who managed to escape from their depressed home town of Amgash, Illinois.  When she actually appears in the book, however, it's clear that she may have escaped physically and economically, but not psychologically. Each of the nine stories in the book focuses on a different person, from the school janitor who may have been harmed by the Barton family and yet cares deeply about them, to Lucy's brother and sister (both damaged people), a school counselor who loses her cool when Lucy's niece mocks her, a cousin who has also gotten out of Amgash with scars. My description makes the book sound depressing, and some of the stories are indeed sad--but Strout also gives us humor and redemption. I plan to read this book again because I know I will get more out of it as I did on repeat reading of Olive Kitteridge.

I also recommend highly Lincoln in the Bardo, a novel quite different from anything else I've read lately. The core of the story is this: Willie Lincoln, son of President and Mrs. Lincoln dies and, after the funeral, the President visits the crypt where his body lies, as an entire community of dead but not departed spirits observe, comment, and attempt to influence. Yes, it's weird, and the aspect of people caught between life and the afterlife didn't really excite me, but the way Saunders puts the book together is remarkable. First there the voices of an array of dead folks who provide commentary, sketching as they do a portrait of the city of Washington in 1862, in a manner that reminded me (and, I now see, the NYT reviewer) of The Spoon River Anthology. Even more interesting to me were  chapters describing historical events that Saunders put together from historical accounts (I assume they are real sources and that he didn't make them up--but could be wrong about that); these accounts show how differently people can see the same event. Finally, there's something about the way in which Lincoln is described/portrayed that I found deeply moving (of course I am a daughter of the Land of Lincoln). A unique and worthwhile reading experience.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley has gotten a lot of positive attention. It's the story of a man with a questionable past and the bullet wounds to prove it and the daughter he is raising alone. The book goes back and forth between accounts of how Hawley got each wound and current accounts narrated by his daughter, Loo, who is trying to figure out how to live in one place and become part of the community (for most of her life, she and Hawley have been nomads, moving whenever Hawley felt trouble from his past getting too near (and there was lots of trouble from the past). There's something of a mystery about how Loo's mother died but as more of Hawley's past was uncovered, I found myself less and less interested in his story of bad decisions and associated bad consequences. Definitely don't quite understand why people have found this book so laudable--definitely not my cup of tea.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is one of those gently satiric accounts of the British upper crust that make you laugh and simultaneously love and hate the British. The titular character insists on being called by his title (preferably with a description of his units and service), dislikes Americans, cares more about reuniting a matched pair of guns than he does about his brother's death, and has rather rigid ideas about what is proper and what is not--and yet he's still kind of lovable. However, one can imagine what happens when he falls for the Indian widow who runs the local corner store--the path of true love certainly does not run smoothly. An amusing read.


Nonfiction
Nine Parts of Desire, by Geraldine Brooks
Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance
Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, by Svetlana Alexievich
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling

Before turning to writing novels, Geraldine Brooks was a journalist, and Nine Parts of Desire was the result of her years of covering the Middle East. The book focuses on the lives of Islamic women (the title is a reference to the Koran's description of sexual desire as having ten parts, one part given to men, nine to women) in different countries and different situations. To a Western woman who has never visited the Middle East, the book seemed pretty even-handed, informative, and thought-provoking. I am always interested in the varying ways in which wearing the veil can be perceived: Brooks discusses it as repression by the male culture and/or rebellion against Western colonialism. I always found it interesting that the male Muslim's view of women's sexuality seems comparable to that of some Christian evangelicals (cf. Mike Pence's comments on not eating dinner alone with a woman not his wife). However, the book is more than 20 years old, so I found myself questioning how accurate the information is today--I'm guessing women's portion has improved in some ways and gotten worse (possibly much worse) in others. Guess I need another book.

Hillbilly Elegy is another book that has been much lauded. Vance grew up in a dysfunctional but loving (in an odd way) family in southern Ohio and northern Kentucky, where, it is claimed, the white lower class has lost the American Dream. Yet Vance's own story, which includes a law degree from the nation's top law school, epitomizes the American Dream.  While many reviewers have said the book helps readers understand Trump enthusiasts, they remain a mystery to me. If these white folks have lost the American Dream, it seems to be due to their own bad decisions and the inevitable globalization of the economy rather than a Democratic government's actions (they take advantage of welfare programs) or the rise of minorities. If they truly see Trump as somehow a solution to the problems, then I continue to find little to empathize with (sorry not to be more caring).

Secondhand Time is a collection of oral histories gathered and compiled by the Nobel prize-winning journalist Svetlana Alexievich. Alexievich has spoken with people from all walks of life; they comment--often with anger or wistfulness--about their hopes during the Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras and their nostalgia for the Soviet period. There are so many references about kitchen conversations one comes to realize that the kitchen is where change was born in the Soviet Union. The book is reminiscent of Studs Terkel's work, with little text written by Alexievich, although of course one must consider that she edited and arranged the material. One confusing thing is that the material is not dated, so you're not sure when the person was talking with Alexievich. Definitely interesting, although perhaps a bit long for those of us who aren't deeply knowledgeable about Russia.

I haven't watched a television sitcom regularly for 20 years, since someone described sitcoms as having devolved to the "art of the insult" and a bell went off in my head. I saw maybe half an episode of 30 Rock, none of Parks and Recreation, one episode of The Office, and none of The Mindy Project. I have watched a lot of SNL, so I use that as my reason for reading Tina Fey's and Amy Poehler's recent books. Not sure why I decided to read Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? -- guess I was just hoping for some laughs. Sadly, I think I am too old for Mindy Kaling, as the most the book drew from me was a wry smile.

Picks of the Litter: Anything Is Possible and Lincoln in the Bardo

Favorite Passages

She thought how for years onstage she had used the image of walking up the dirt road holding her father's hand, the snow-covered fields spread around them, the woods in the distance, joy spilling through her--how she had used this scene to have tears immediately come to her eyes, for the happiness of it, and the loss of it. And now she wondered if it had even happened, if the road had ever been narrow and dirt, if her father had ever held her hand and said that his family was the most important thing to him.

The sense of apology did not go away, it was a tiring thing to carry.

--Elizabeth Strout, Anything Is Possible


(So why grieve? The worst of it, for him, is over.) Because I loved him so and am in the habit of loving him and that love must take the form of fussing and worry and doing. Only there is nothing left to do.

--George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo


Their mother knew where all their buttons were. And why not? She'd installed them.
--Louise Penny, A Rule Against Murder