Sunday, April 2, 2017

In Like a Clueless Millenial, Out Like a Clueless Senior

It's said that March cames in like a lion, out like a lamb--and sometimes it's even true here where March is, on average, the snowiest month (not this year!). My reading might be characterized as both coming in and going out with clueless characters, from Tess the narrator of Sweetbitter to Lou (AKA Lulu) of Bridge of Sighs. In between, some folks with clues, which is good!

The Highwayman, by Craig Johnson
Caught, by Harlan Coban
The Perfect Girl, by Gilly Macmillan

The Highwayman was my second Longmire mystery (though this one is a novella rather than a full-length book), and I liked it better than the first--despite its having a mystical element that is usually not my style. The story features strange occurrences--including the appearance of a state trooper who has been dead for years--on a remote stretch of highway running through a canyon. The descriptions of the landscape are lovely, and the mystery itself is okay. Might tempt me to read another Longmire (or watch some episodes on Netflix).

On a recent road trip with my sister, she asked me if I read Harlan Coban and I said I'd read a couple but hadn't been overly impressed. Her comments led me to give him another try--and it will be the last. I think all I need to say is that I read Caught about two weeks ago and can't remember a damn thing about it except that someone who's supposed to be dead isn't--something that has happened in every Coban book I've read!

The Perfect Girl is a creepy story about a blended family with two teenagers (both talented pianists) and a newborn. The teenage daughter has spent time in a juvenile facility because she was driving (without a license) when an accident occurred, killing her three passengers. This event broke up her parents' marriage and her mother now seems to be building a near-perfect "Second Life" with her wealthy and handsome new husband. To avoid any spoilers I won't say anything else except, based on this book and her previous novel What She Knew, author Gilly Macmillan seems to enjoy calling into question what a good mother is.

Sweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler
Moonglow, by Michael Chabon
Nightwoods, by Charles Frazier
The Sleepwalker, by Chris Bohjalian
Harmless Like You, by Rowan Hisayo Buchanon
On Turpentine Lane, by Elinor Lipman
Bridge of Sighs, by Richard Russo

I printed out a list of the 20 books that landed on the most "best of 2016" lists, and Sweetbitter and Moonglow were both on it--but neither would even be on my "best of March" list. Sweetbitter is the story of a recent college graduate, Tess, who moves to New York and gets a job in a fine dining restaurant, where she works tirelessly, does a significant amount of cocaine, hooks up with a bartender, and hero-worships a long-time server who seems more pathetic than obsession-worthy. A completely pointless book as far as I'm concerned.

Moonglow must be taken more seriously, if only because its author is generally held in high regard--but I really didn't like it any better. It's structured as a grandson telling his grandfather's life story as it was told to him in the grandfather's dying days. Inspired by the author's experience with his own grandfather (the character of the grandson is named Michael Chabon), the story jumps back and forth in time, covering the grandfather's terrifying experiences in World War II his somewhat tortured marriage to Chabon's grandmother, who struggled with mental illness; and, is the way with Chabon's books, much much more. I didn't care for it, finding the characters somewhat cartoonish, but Moonglow has been positively reviewed by many, so don't let me hold you back if it sounds like something you would enjoy.

Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, a Civil War tale, was a sensation -- I think I was one of the few readers who found it mostly a bore, which was also how I felt about his novel Nightwoods, set in the 1960s. A young woman named Luce, who lives mostly cut off from civilization, tending an abandoned lodge, "inherits" her sister's children when the sister is murdered by her husband (although he is not charged with the crime). The children are mute, severely damaged by whatever they experienced in their home life. Meanwhile the sister's evil husband comes after them, and the heir of the lodge's former owner appears and falls in love with Luce. Sounds like the basis for an action-packed and moving story, right? And yet. mostly (I think) because of Frazier's overblown style, it feels like nothing is happening.

I enjoy Chris Bohjalian's work and admire his ability to write from a female perspective, as he does in The Sleepwalker. The protagonist here is college student Liana, whose mother, a sleepwalker, has recently disappeared. The police seem unable to figure out what is going on, and Liana takes on some investigating on her own. In the course of her investigations, she develops a relationship with one of the police officers, which seems pretty unlikely.  There's quite a lot of information about sleepwalking and the problems of sleepwalkers and a surprise at the ending, but overall, not one of Bohjalian's best but still a fairly entertaining read.

Harmless Like You is narrated from two perspectives. The first belongs to Yuki, a girl of Japanese heritage (but U.S. citizenship), set in the late 1960s and 1970s; when her businessman father is transferred back to Japan, her parents allow her to stay in the United States, living with a friend and her mother. But little goes well for Yuki, who hooks up with the mother's boyfriend and then, when the abusive relationship sours, hastily marries a friend. While trying to become an artist, she gives birth to a son and falls in to what appears to be a severe depression, leading her to abandon her husband and son. The second character is that son, an art dealer who is traveling to Berlin, where his mother now lives, while contemplating leaving his wife and newborn child. The author deals with several themes, most notably the role art plays in various people's lives and what it means to be married and a parent. Both the connections between Jay's shortcomings as a father and his mother's obvious parenting issues and the ultimate resolution seem too pat, but I still found the book interesting.

I enjoy Elinor Lipman's books--to me, she is a Jane Austen for the 20th/21st centuries. Her stories are relatively light, but they do include social commentary. On Turpentine Lane is a perfect example. Faith Frankel is a 30-something professional who is somewhat underemployed, engaged to an idiot who is walking across the country to find himself (and, apparently, meet women), and concerned about her father, who has moved out of her parents' home to become an artist (he paints faux Chagalls). She decides to buy a small house, which she eventually discovers has been the scene of two murders and the mysterious disappearance of two biracial children. It has a happy ending (at least for Faith, if not for other characters) and it's just good fun!

I have a more troubled relationship with Richard Russo. I loved Empire Falls, but then my 90s book group (not Novel Conversations) got on a Russo kick that caused me to get really sick of him. Recently, I seem to have initiated my own kick, reading both Nobody's Fool and Bridge of Sighs in the past couple months. Bridge of Sighs tempted me to declare this Russo kick over, but I still want to read Everybody's Fool, so I'm going to persist. Anyway, Bridge of Sighs is primarily the story of Lou Lynch and his hometown of Thomaston, a rather run-down burg in upstate New York. Lou has done well with the convenience store business he  inherited from his father, and he's happily married to his high school sweetheart Sarah. But Lou suffers from "spells" that started after a traumatic childhood incident and worries that his wife really loves his friend Bobby, who had to flee Thomaston after nearly killing his own father, Bobby became a successful painter, living in Venice. Although Lou is the central character, sections of the book are also narrated by Bobby and Sarah. Sadly, the book doesn't have the pop of Nobody's Fool or Empire Falls, perhaps because Lou is intentionally designed as a rather boring guy. Despite the infusion of such issues as domestic abuse and racism, the book never takes off and the ending is totally ridiculous.

Science Fiction/Fantasy
The Diamond Age, by Neil Stephenson
Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch

My son Kevin recommended The Diamond Age, and I surprised myself by thoroughly enjoying it. It's a very complex story set sometime in the future but at its heart is a high tech primer that master engineer John Percival Hackworth designed for a wealthy nobleman who wants to subvert the education his granddaughter is receiving in the schools. Hackworth makes an unauthorized copy for his own daughter, but that copy is then stolen by a young tough who gives it to his sister Nell. The primer becomes Nell's constant companion and educator as she grows up into a woman of destiny. Meanwhile, Hackworth loses his job and goes on a quest for a mysterious figure known as the Alchemist.  This synopsis really gives no sense of the book, which is rich and complex and strange. The ending was not as satisfying as I might have wished, but nonetheless quite wonderful.

Dark Matter starts out as the story of a rather ordinary college professor, Jason Dessen and his wife, who gave up her career as an artist to raise their son. But then, on the way home from a bar, he is kidnapped by a stranger, driven to an abandoned power plant in south Chicago, and drugged; he wakes up in a lab, greeted by a team of people who are delighted to see him and curious to find out what has happened to him while absent from his life. Eventually, Jason realizes that he is in a parallel universe where his career is much more exalted but he has no family. He desperately tries to make his way back home, journeying through various Chicagos where he encounters even more versions of himself. The premise is interesting, as is some of Crouch's exploration of the concept of how each decision an individual makes creates alternate universes. The latter part of the book devolves into an action movie sequence (the book is, in fact, being made into a movie), which definitely made detracted from the very interesting first half.

Young Adult
A Night Divided, by Jennifer A. Nielsen

My nine (and a half)-year-old granddaughter recommended A Night Divided to me, describing it as "intense." And she wasn't wrong. It's the story of a family living in East Berlin when the wall went up. The family's father and one son were working in the West at the time and were unable to return home to the mother, older son, and daughter. The daughter, 12-year-old Gerta, is feisty and insightful--and she quickly realizes that being trapped in the East foretells a life that she does not want. She and her brother decide to take action, which leads to a heart-pounding conclusion. A good read with some history kids may not otherwise learn much about.

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain

Despite being written in 1953, Fahrenheit 451 remains a compelling dystopian novel in which books are burned and thought is tightly controlled. The protagonist, Guy Montag is a fireman whose wife finds television characters more authentic than Guy or anyone else in the "real world." Then he meets a young neighbor who has her own ideas about the past and the future, and he begins to question the foundations of his life. He begins hoarding books, eventually becoming a fugitive. More than likely, everyone but me has already read this book, but if you haven't, do so!

Double Indemnity, on the other hand, is a rather silly book. An insurance agent becomes instantly enamored with a woman who comes into his office, agreeing to murder her husband on very short acquaintance. Seriously? Apologies to all who find it tightly plotted, suspenseful, or exciting, but I really thought it was ridiculous.

Old Age: A Beginner's Guide, by Michael Kinsley

Being past retirement age (but not retired), I may be fixating on illness and aging. Last month it was Richard Cohen's book about being diagnosed with MS at a young age, this month it's Michael Kinsley (like Cohen, a journalist) discussing an early Parkinson's diagnosis. The title is somewhat misleading, as the book is not so much about aging as about Parkinson's and the author's own experience. In the last chapter, he argues that baby boomers ought to use their accumulated wealth to pay off the national debt, an achievement he believes would surpass the contributions of the so-called Greatest Generation--definitely an odd conclusion. If you don't want to get into a full-blown obsession with books on aging and illness, I would recommend Cohen's work over Kinsley's.

Pick of the Litter: The Diamond Age and (at a very different level) On Turpentine Lane

Favorite Passages

Most of their children had reached the age when they were no longer naturally endearing to anyone save their own parents; the size when their energy was more a menace than a wonder; and the level of intelligence when what would have been called innocence in a smaller child was infuriating rudeness. A honeybee cruising for nectar is pretty despite its implicit threat, but the same behavior in a hornet three times larger makes one glance about for some handy swatting material.

Not very honourable, I suppose, but then  there is no honour among consultants. 

Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age

We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were
really bothered? About something important, about something real? 

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Long Book List for a Short Month . . . and a Rant on Vocal Fry in Audio Books

I got a lot of reading done this month--this list doesn't even include a few books I read "selectively" (but well more than half of each) so I could comment on them in our One Book One Broomfield deliberations. But before I get to this month's list . . . my rant. Two books I've listened to lately have featured liberal use of "vocal fry." In case you don't know what that is, vocal fry refers to a fad, particularly among younger women, in which (technical description) "the vocal folds are shortened and slack so they close together completely and pop back open, with a little jitter, as the air comes through. That popping, jittery effect gives the voice a characteristic sizzling or frying sound." If you don't know what I'm talking about, try sustaining a word in your normal speaking register, as if singing, and then dropping your voice several notes lower--does your voice "sizzle" slightly?  That's vocal fry (if that doesn't work, check out this article:

I find vocal fry very irritating, both in real life and in audio books. I realize (and I sure hope I'm right about this) that the narrator is using this technique for effect to show us something about the character. But it's not necessary; if the book is well-written, we'll understand from the author's descriptions and the dialogue that the character is young, somewhat less than completely serious, talks like a Kardashian, etc. So please, please, please, audio book narrators, knock off the vocal fry!!

Okay, now to books.


The Widow, by Fiona Barton
An Obvious Fact, by Craig Johnson
The Language of Secrets, by Ausma Zehanat Khan
Until You're Mine, by Samantha Hayes
Escape Clause, by John Sandford
Right Behind You, by Lisa Gardner

The Widow is a creepy story told from four perspectives: the widow of a man suspected of kidnapping and killing a child several years earlier; the man himself; the police officer who has tried to convict the suspect; and a reporter. While the story is creepy, it's not very surprising, although I assume the author thought she would surprise us with developments in the widow's story. Sadly, I could see the developments coming. Mediocre at best.

I had never read any of Craig Johnson's Longmire series, and I don't think I will read any more. There's nothing terrible about An Obvious Fact, but the tongue-in-cheek attitude just doesn't appeal to me and the mystery (involving a hit-and-run accident at a motorcycle rally) is not especially interesting.

The Language of Secrets is the second in a series featuring Canadian police officers Rachel Getty and Esa Khattak). Beautifully written, it deals with a complicated case of terrorism, infiltration, and professional jealousy--so complicated I found it a bit hard to track. However, I liked it well enough to decide I would go back and read book 1 in the series, hoping the background it provides would help me better understand this book. Definitely worth a look for mystery fans interested in different settings and exploration of terrorism.

The protagonist of Until You're Mine is pregnant social worker Claudia Morgan-Brown. Married to a naval officer who brought twin sons to the marriage, Claudia has recently hired a nanny, Zoe, to help her while her husband is at sea and the baby is born. Meanwhile, someone is killing pregnant women and their babies, and Claudia begins to fear that something is off about Zoe--and so are the readers! While author Samantha Hayes does spring a surprise ending on readers, I didn't find it very convincing--in fact, it seemed so out of sync with the rest of the book that the book was essentially ruined for me.

Escape Clause is the latest Virgil Flowers mystery, and it is a lame story about the kidnapping of two tigers from the Minnesota zoo, A subplot about Frankie (Virgil's girlfriend) and her sister's attempts to help factory workers does little to redeem the book. Not recommended.

Lisa Gardner has returned to former FBI profiler Pierce Quincy and his wife Rainie in Right Behind You. Pierce and Rainie are about to adopt Sharlah, whose brother Telly killed their parents eight years earlier. Suddenly, Telly returns, apparently involved in a spree killing; evidence suggests Sharlah must be in danger.  Pierce, Rainie, and Sharlah (the extent to which they allow the child to be engaged in the case is ridiculous)--with the aid of the local police--must figure out exactly what is going on, Not great, but an okay diversion.


Tomorrow, by Graham Swift
Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin
Small Admissions, by Amy Poeppel
Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi
Past Imperfect, by Julian Fellowes
Horrorstor, by Grady Hendrix
News of the World, by Paulette Jiles

Graham Swift is a Booker-prize winner, but Tomorrow is frankly disgusting. It is formatted as a letter being written to teenage twins by their mother on the eve of the day on which she and their father will reveal a family secret to them. The secret is fairly clear long before it is actually revealed, and the narrative is one of the most cringe-worthy I've read; the mother is horrible, sharing lewd details of her sex life with her husband with her children and evincing attitudes toward the meaning of parenthood that made me sad and disgusting. So not recommended.

I had never read any Colm Toibin, but had seen many glowing reviews of his work. Sadly, I was not too impressed with Brooklyn, which is the story of Eilis Lacey, who grows up in Ireland, is sent to the United States to find greater opportunities, and returns to Ireland when her beloved sister dies. Much of the narrative is taken up with romances and work. Many reviewers have described her as an unforgettable character, but I found myself unable to get beyond her passive nature and really idiotic decision-making. I enjoy a good book about the immigrant experience, but, in my opinion, Brooklyn isn't it.

Small Admissions is a satire focused on (1) millennials who cannot get out of bed after a break-up and subsequently get jobs for which they are totally unqualified and (2) young parents in New York who try to get their children into the best private schools. The descriptions of admissions interviews and parents' efforts to obscure their children's real personalities and foibles are hilarious. Not deep but fun.

Homegoing is an interesting book, a novel that seems more like a series of short stories. The book alternates between chapters about the lives and descendants of two Ghanaian half sisters, Effia and Esi. Under pressure from her stepmother, Effia marries the British governor and her family remains in Ghana for two centuries; through their stories, we learn about Ghanaian history, including conflicts between tribal groups and with the British. Esi is sold into slavery and, through her descendants' stories, we get one perspective on the experience of slavery and "freedom" in the United States. Both families encounter difficulties that are hard to imagine--and Gyasi tells the stories beautifully. Near the end of the book, the two families encounter each other in a manner that is somewhat predictable but still rewarding. I recommend this emotional and insightful book.

Past Imperfect, written by the creator of Downton Abby, lays bare the lives of young English men and women of the upper classes in the late 1960s and explicates how life for those  folks has changed since then. The story is set up as a somewhat ridiculous quest--a man agrees to find the illegimate son Damian Baxter, a dying man he actively hates because of a traumatic vacation decades earlier. Through his interviews with the numerous women in their set with whom Damian slept, we see the foibles of the wealthy. Really a very silly book.

And speaking of silly, Horrorstor starts out as a satire of Ikea, complete with book pages that resemble a catalog. But the book quickly morphs into a ridiculous ghost story chronicling horrors that befall a group of employees trapped in the Ikea clone overnight. Perhaps I am just too old for something like this, but I cannot recommend Horrorstor.

In News of the World, Captain Jefferson Kidd, 70-year-old veteran, travels around Texas, charging a dime to read articles from East Coast and European newspapers to people in small towns. Then he is tasked with taking a 10-year-old girl recently rescued from the Kiowas to her relatives hundreds of miles away. Johanna, who has spent four years with the Kiowas, has forgotten English and the ways of her German-American family; in her mind, she is Kiowa. The book is the story of their journey and the process by which they came to love each other. Though I don't think this is a great book (several of my friends disagree), it is sweet and I recommend it.


Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison

I remember enjoying Invisible Man in college, but all I could recall was that the protagonist lived underground in New York, surviving off the grid as a literal and virtual invisible. In fact, the book is about the events that led him to that point--growing up in the severely racist South; a tragi-comedic series of events that led to his expulsion from a historically black college; his efforts to find work in New York, unaware that his letters of recommendation from his college's president are really letters of condemnation; his experience as a spokesman for "The Brotherhood," an activist group (likely modeled on the Communist Party). At every phase of his life, he ends up feeling duped, unseen by those who take advantage of him. Invisible Man is a powerful exploration of racism and identity in mid-century America--yet many of its observations still seem relevant. Strongly recommended.

Young Adult

What We Saw at Night, by Jacqueline Mitchard

Allie, Rob, and Juliet are teenagers who suffer from a genetic disorder, Xeriderma Pigmentosum that prevents them from going out in the sunlight. At night, the three take part in a dangerous activity called Parkour, which involves climbing and jumping from tall structures. During one of their Parkour adventures, Allie believes she witnessed a murder. Things become even more complicated when it appears that Juliet has a relationship with the murderer and the threesome experiences a rift when Rob and Allie become a couple. XO and Parkour are kind of interesting but the story is murky and unrewarding. Not recommended for young or old adults.


Blindsided: Lifting a Life Above Illness, by Richard M. Cohen
Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience, edited by Shaun Usher

Blindsided is an interesting look at what it is like to live with a chronic illness (MS) diagnosed at an early age and to deal with an acute illness (cancer twice). Cohen details how the illness affected both his personal and professional lives. Honestly, I'm not sure I could survive being either the person with the illness or his spouse (Cohen is married to Meredith Vierra); while neither is perfect, they both are admirable. It would have been interesting to get more of their three children's perspectives,  but I understand why a father would deal only indirectly with the children's responses. Recommended.

Letters of Note is indeed an eclectic collection. Some examples of letters included: letters from mothers who placed their children for adoption, an eight-year-old's missive to Richard Nixon, a Campbell's Soup marketing executive's letter to Andy Warhol, Raymond Chandler's response to being overedited, Virginia Woolf's suicide note, a letter from Queen Elizabeth transmitting a recipe to President Eisenhower, advice from Ernest Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and a long description (by his wife) of Alduous Huxley's dying). I would think that any reader would find some letters of particular interest to him/her (while the reader who would be enthralled by all might be a rarity). Worth a look.  BTW: The abbreviation OMG dates back to 1917!

Pick of the Litter:  Invisible Man

Favorite Passages

I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer. It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself.

Ralph Ellison, in Invisible Man

We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So, when you study history, you must always ask yourself, whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth?

Yaa Gyasia, in Homegoing

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

January: Reading to Escape Politics!

I did a lot of reading in January--though escaping politics turned out to be a difficult (if not impossible) goal. Nonetheless, here is what used for distraction (sorry it's so long--perhaps I should go back to individual entries!).

Kate Burkholder: Three Novellas, by Linda Castillo
Among the Wicked, by Linda Castillo
Luckiest Girl Alive, by Jessica Knoll
The Trespasser, by Tana French
Out of Bounds, by Val McDermid

I'm not sure why mystery writers even produce novellas--there's not enough space to develop and resolve an intriguing mystery. Unless there's a really unusual twist or superlative writing, mystery novellas tend not to be very rewarding reading. Even given that, the Kate Burkholder novellas are better than Among the Wicked, in which Linda Castillo has totally jumped the shark with her ex-Amish police chief. Burkholder goes undercover in a fringe Amish community; poorly prepared and completely undisciplined, Kate nearly is killed. Just in case you want to read this book, I won't mention some of the other reasons this book is completely unbelievable, but suffice it to say I'm done with the Burkholder series.

Luckiest Girl Alive isn't really a mystery but it's marketed as being similar to Gone Girl or Girl on a Train so I wanted to put this review where fans of those books might be most likely to read it. There is simply no comparison--except that the word girl appears in the title and that titular character is less than likable. Here that character is Ani, a high-powered New Yorker who is preparing for her wedding while dealing with memories of a terrible experience more than a dozen years early when she was in boarding school. It's tragic that girls have such experiences, but concern about teenage girls is not enough to make this book worthwhile.

The Trespasser is a rather typical entry in French's Dublin Murder Squad series. It involves a detective (Antoinette Conway) with personal problems and a case involving numerous twists and turns--here the murder of a young woman. All the early evidence points to her date--but of course nothing can be that simple. I thought The Trespasser lacked some of the evocative writing that marked earlier entries in the series, but it was fairly effective as a diversion from politics.

Out of Bounds was definitely the best mystery of the month. Karen Pirie, mourning the death of her lover, takes on two cold cases (or historic cases as they are evidently called in Scotland), one of which is linked to a current case. If you like the procedural aspects of mysteries, there is interesting material here about DNA evidence and the ways in which cold cases are re-examined. Not a sparkler, but decent entertainment for mystery-lovers.

Swing Time, by Zadie Smith
Siracusa, by Delia Ephron
How to Set a Fire and Why, by Jesse Ball
The Girls, by Emma Cline
The Sellout, by Paul Beatty
The Angel of History, by Rabih Alameddine
A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Toles
Another Brooklyn, by Jacqueline Woodson
Orhan's Inheritance, by Aline Ohanesian
Zero K, by Don DeLillo

Swing Time tells the story of two biracial friends who grew up in public housing in London loving musicals and dancing. The more talented dancer of the two, Tracey, makes some bad decisions and doesn't manage to escape the low-income estates. The other, our nameless narrator (at least I can't remember her name), goes to college and becomes an assistant to a pop star who seems to be a combination of Oprah and Madonna (she starts a school for girls in Africa and adopts an African baby under suspicious circumstances). The book deals with a number of themes--racism, family relationships, childhood friendship, British politics (the narrator's mother is a feminist who becomes an MP), the inspiration of art, and the unintended consequences of charitable activities--all while spinning a story that carries the reader along. I don't think Swing Time is a great book, but it's a good one worth reading.

Siracusa, on the other hand, is not worth your time. It's the overly foreshadowed and thus predictable story of two couples vacationing together in Sicily. There seems to be no really good reason for them to be hanging out together--in fact, since one husband and the other wife were once lovers, there seem to be pretty good reasons for them not to; and the results are bad. All four main characters--and one couple's daughter Snow--are completely unsympathetic; given that there's no exploration of meaningful ideas either, the book is a complete waste of time.

How to Set a Fire and Why and The Girls have some similarities--both are about teenage girls whose families fall apart, leaving them to fend for themselves. The protagonist of How to Set a Fire has a rebellious voice (a la Holden Caulfield); she is fascinated with fire and hopes to join her school's arson club. Then an interested teacher who sees her potential helps her gain acceptance to a boarding school for exceptional kids; but the hope for a positive future is short-lived, as a conflict with her aunt's landlord ends up undermining her plans. I found it interesting that this compelling, disturbed female character was written by a male author--but it works, and I cared about Lucia. In contrast, despite the fact that The Girls was a "big book" in 2016, I really didn't care about its main character, Evie, who gets drawn into a Manson-like cult. We know from the frame in which the story of Evie's youth is set (an encounter with a friend's son prompts remembrance) that Evie is not one of the girls who were imprisoned, which removes any real suspense from the story. We may learn a lot about cults, but not enough to make this book recommendable.

The Sellout won the Man Booker prize, the first book by a U.S. author to do so. I can't help thinking that the Brits enjoyed giving the award to an absolutely scathing satirical novel about race in America. The main character is Bonbon Me, an African American farmer in Los Angeles who has a slave (a former child actor), resegregates his neighborhood and local school, likes to create Latin mottoes for his race, and torments a group of black intellectuals who meet in Dum Dum Doughnuts. The book is fast-paced (although you're never sure that it's actually going anywhere) and full of pop culture, literary, and political references. It's sometimes very funny and occasionally annoying when you realize Beatty's references aren't always accurate (maybe that doesn't matter in satire, but . . .). My son, who has lived in Japan for more than 5 years and studies Japanese literature was somewhat disturbed by inaccurate references to that nation; I got worked up over the way in which he presented the Supreme Court--not that he was criticizing the Court (see quote below for a pretty accurate critique of what happens at the Court) but that he did it in a way that inaccurately represented how it works (the defendant does not sit at the table with the attorneys!!). Despite the annoyances, I found The Sellout a worthwhile read but be warned--the language is rough and may offend some readers.

I've read three Rabih Alameddine novels and each is completely different from the others. The Angel of History is the story of Jacob, a gay Yemeni poet living in San Francisco. All of his friends died in the early years of the AIDS epidemic. Following that disaster, he was confined to a mental hospital for some time, but has been healthy for a decade when he feels himself starting to slip into mental illness again. As he waits to be seen at a hospital, he reflects on his early life--years in a whorehouse with his mother, followed by time in a Christian boarding school in Lebanon (sent there by his father)--as well as his turbulent relationship with his long-dead partner. This may sound rather normal for a plot--but Satan and Death are debating his fate and 14 Middle Eastern angels are watching over him. Yes, it's unusual--I'm in awe of Alameddine's creativity and skill. Recommended.

At the beginning of A Gentleman in Moscow, the Bolsheviks sentence Count Alexander Rostov to house arrest in a small attic room in the Metropol, a Moscow hotel in which he previously lived in a luxurious suite. His crime? Writing a poem the Bolsheviks disapproved of. He builds a life within the hotel, becoming the headwaiter in the hotel's fine dining restaurant, adopting the daughter of a young woman who disappears looking for her exiled husband, and constructing a family of those who work in the hotel. His adoptive daughter is a gifted musician, a fact that eventually calls for action. Although Rostov's life is shaped by larger political events, the book isn't really about those events--it's about one person's effort to give his life meaning in constrained circumstances. Recommended.

Anthropologist August is back in Brooklyn for her father's funeral. It's her first visit in many years and, when she sees an old friend, it prompts her to reflect on growing up in the borough in the 1970s. She, her brother, and her father lived in an apartment; her father, a member of the Nation of Islam, was strict about what the children could do and who they could hang out with. But eventually, August became part of a small group of four close friends and her memories of that friendship are the core of Another Brooklyn, which explores themes of friendship, memory, and family. Woodson's language is poetic and the book is short, though I felt like it didn't quite add up to as much as I thought it would. In other words, I'm torn about recommending it.

I found Orhan's Inheritance interesting because it's about a topic I know little about--the Armenian genocide. The book vacillates between the present, when 30-something Turk Orhan is trying to find the woman to whom his grandfather left their family home to so he can convince her to sign it over to him and World War I, when the atrocities against the Armenians occurred (these events also explain his grandfather's actions). The story set in World War I is grueling, but the contemporary story is equally important, since it deals with those who remember and those who choose to forget or deny. The writing is competent but not fabulous, but I'd still recommend the book because of the important content.

My son recently asked if I had read much Don DeLillo and I could only think of one of his books that I had read, so when Zero K was available on Overdrive, I downloaded it. It sounded fascinating, dealing with a son's response to his father and stepmother's decision to be cryogenically preserved at a remote and weird compound where the son has a series of bizarre experiences as a waits to bid first his stepmother and then his father good-bye. DeLillo waxes philosophical about death, life, and the varying ways in which people make decisions about them. But neither those musings nor the book held much meaning. Not recommended.

Dubliners, by James Joyce

I know I risk losing all credibility as a reader by saying that I disliked Dubliners, but . . . I disliked Dubliners. Joyce presents 15 stories or sketches about residents of Dublin at the turn of the 20th century. Maybe he captured this type of grubby existence first and I am just late to the party, but I feel like I have read this all before and don't gain anything new from Joyce's work. Sorry . . . but not recommended.

Young Adult
Me Being Me Is Exactly as Insane as You Being You, by Todd Hasak-Lowy

This YA novel (definitely for teenagers rather than good readers in elementary or early middle school) is the story of Darren Jacobs, a teenage boy whose parents are recently divorced, whose older brother is away at college (where he is not doing well), and whose social life goes from largely imagined to requiring juggling two girlfriends. The book is presented as a series of lists (text message exchanges between the Jacobs brothers, mothering strategies used by Darren's mom, manifestations of nervous excitement, facts about Rachel and Darren's relationship, etc.), a device that is engaging at first but becomes tedious as the book lumbers along for 600 pages!  If the book were half the length, I might be able to recommend it, but at this length . . . nope!

The Fame Lunches: On Wounded Icons, Money, Sex, the Brontes, and the Importance of Handbags, by Daphne Merkin
Still Foolin' 'Em, by Billy Crystal
Upstream, by Mary Oliver

The the essays in Daphne Merkin's collection vary from celebrity profiles to serious book reviews to commentaries on family dysfunction and pop culture. The book reviews are the best part of the book--although many of them seem to be more about proving Merkin's knowledge of the subject or author of the book being reviewed than critiquing the book. I found Merkin's personality annoying. She mocks Joyce Maynard for having spilled too much of her inner life but writes about her own family issues and sex. She refers to someone as having "Oriental" eyes. And she repeatedly mocks Midwesterners (I do not take kindly to such). In addition, she ends her essays with cutesy tag lines like the ones I wrote in high school and college. I won't be reading any more Merkin.

Still Foolin' 'Em is what you'd expect of Billy Crystal's reflections on life and aging: it's funny (but not uproarious) and reflects a deep love of his work and his family. I don't remember any particular wisdom (or jokes) from the book, but I enjoyed it.

Similarly, Upstream is what you'd expect from a book of essays by poet Mary Oliver--reflections on nature, on writing, on writers who inspired her. The nature essays provide a level of detail that is unexpected, however. For example, Oliver describes a spider in its web (including the process of eating a cricket) with astonishing particularity. She also includes a paean to Provincetown, where she lived for many years. And, of course, the language and writing are beautiful and, perhaps it goes without saying, poetic. Recommended, if only for the language.

Pick of the Litter:  Swing Time, by Zadie Smith

Favorite Passages:

And what is that great labor? Out-circling interest, sympathy, empathy, transference of focus from the self to all else; the merging of the lonely single self with the wondrous, never-lonely entirety. This is all. The rest is literature: words, words, words; example, metaphor, narrative, lyricism, sweetness, persuasion, the stress of rhetoric, the weight of catalog.

It is supposed that a writer writes what he knows about and knows well. It is not necessarily so. A writer’s subject may just as well, if not more likely, be what the writer longs for and dreams about, in an unquenchable dream, in lush detail and harsh honesty.

Mary Oliver, Upstream

The reason they don't permit cameras has nothing to do with maintaining decorum and dignity. It's to protect the country from seeing what's underneath Plymouth Rock. Because the Supreme Court is where the country takes out its dick and tits and decides who's going to get fucked and who's getting a taste of mother's milk. It's constitutional pornography in there, and what did Justice Potter once say about obscenity? I know it when I see it.

Paul Beatty, The Sellout

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

What is Novel Conversations reading?

Even though I'm a Novel Conversations dropout, I thought you might like to keep up with what the group is reading, so here's their slate for the next six months:
  • February 6: Her Fearful Symmetry—Audrey Niffenegger
  • March 6: Past Imperfect—Julian Fellows
  • April 3: Empty Mansions, the Life of Huguette Clark—Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell
  • May 1: Year of Wonders—Geraldine Brooks
  • June 5: Commonwealth—Ann Patchett
  • July 11: A Gentleman in Moscow—Amor Towles

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Best of 2016

The benefit of putting together a "Best of . . ." list is reminding yourself that you did read some good books--even amid the too numerous bad mysteries and the lack of poetry (not a single book of poetry this year!). Anyway, here are my picks for best of 2016.

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
The Underground Railroad has appeared on more "best of" lists than any other title in 2016, so there's little left to say about it. It's fanciful yet deadly serious and its central character is one of the most fully realized I've encountered this year. I can't recommend it more highly.

Honorable Mention: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy; The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, by Heidi Durrow; The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen; Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett.

Short Stories
Thirteen Ways of Looking, by Colum McCann
This collection is really a novella and three short stories. The pieces are varied--a retired judge is murdered on the street, a writer tries to create a unique story about New Year's, a woman struggles to understand her deaf-mute child, and a nun travels across the ocean to confront a man who raped and tortured her. The novella is the most fully realized but all are interesting and well written.

Honorable Mention: Fortune Smiles, by Adam Johnson

What She Knew, by Gilly Macmillan
Macmillan tells her story well, with excellent character development, solid writing, and an interesting structure. The mystery itself--about an eight-year-old boy who goes missing while walking with his mother--isn't unique, but the book is still compelling.

Honorable Mention: Human Remains, by Elizabeth Haynes

My Kitchen Year, by Ruth Reichl
My Kitchen Year is a beautiful book, a collection of recipes and a photographic and written journal of Reichl's life the year after she lost her job as the editor of Gourmet, My favorite parts of the book were the tweets that she sent as she went through the process of grieving her job and finding new directions. The tweets are impressionistic and evocative, like little poems. Example: "Sun coming up. Hawks hovering outside. Dancing in the kitchen with gnocchi and the blues. Good way to start a Sunday."

Honorable Mention: Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

A Theme

I noticed that one of the themes in my favorite passages this year had to do with truth--perhaps not coincidental in this year marked by lies and fake news:

"Poets, like detectives, know the truth is laborious: it doesn’t occur by accident, rather it is chiseled and worked into being, the product of time and distance and graft. The poet must be open to the possibility that she has to go a long way before a word rises, or a sentence holds, or a rhythm opens, and even then nothing is assured, not even the words that have staked their original claim or meaning."--Colum McCann

"It's easy to smile just to make other people feel better. But when a person fakes happy, it has edges. Regular people may not see, but the people who count, they can see edges and lines where your smile ends and the real you, the sadness (me) or the anger (Grandma) begins."--Heidi Durrow

"Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach."--Colson Whitehead

Wrapping up December's Books

December was a crazy month both because of work and the holidays and my reading was somewhat curtailed--but there were still some definite highlights.

Still Missing, by Chevy Stevens
Random Acts, by J.A. Jance

The narrative of Still Missing is told as a series of sessions in which Annie O'Sullivan tells her therapist--without interruption from the therapist--about her abduction; year-long captivity in which she was terrorized, raped, and gave birth; her escape; and the effort to find out who her captor was and what his motives were. What she eventually learns is as horrifying as her experiences in captivity. I can understand why the author chose this device--it provides a specific purpose for the telling of the victim's story--sadly, I don't think it really works. The story has some similarities to Room, but lacks the nuance and redemptive power of that superior book.

Random Acts is a novella in which J.A. Jance once again brings two of her characters--Ali Reynolds and Joanna Brady. It's very thin in terms of actual mystery--but the author does kill off Brady's mother and stepfather. Who is going to be around to annoy Joanna now?

The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, by Stephen Carter
The Versions of Us, by Laura Barnett
Nobody's Fool, by Richard Russo
Rules of Civility, by Amor Toles
Faithful, by Alice Hoffman
Spectator Bird, by Wallace Stegner
Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett

Stephen Carter asks us to imagine that Abraham Lincoln survived the assassination attempt by John Wilkes Booth (Andrew Johnson was instead killed) and went on to face impeachment. That's the context, but the center of the story is Abigail Canner, a young African American woman who has recently graduated from Oberlin and has returned to her home town of Washington, DC, to pursue a career as an attorney. She finds herself as a valuable and also manipulated law clerk at the firm defending Lincoln. The plot is extremely complicated and the writing occasionally flawed, but The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln is interesting for its exploration of racial, gender, and, well, politics of all types.

Until a few years ago, I'm not sure I had ever read a book that presented different futures for a cast of characters, depending on some relatively minor decision early on in the story; lately such books have proliferated. The Versions of Us is the latest and it adds another layer of complexity by tracing three story lines in the lives of Jim, Eva, and David, students at Cambridge in the late 1950s, Because there are events that cross all three versions of the story, I occasionally found myself struggling to remember which version I was in, who was married to whom in that version, who the children belonged to, and where the characters were in their lives and careers. Nonetheless, I enjoyed following how decisions about family, love, and career evolved and changed subsequent events.

Richard Russo published a sequel to Nobody's Fool and, given its stellar reviews, I decided I should read Nobody's Fool (despite having been in a book group that had a bit of a Russo obsession, I had not read this one) as preparation for Everybody's Fool. If you haven't seen the movie starring Paul Newman (recommended), Nobody's Fool is the story of Sully, a 60-something ne'er-do-very-well who lives in a retired teacher's upstairs apartment in small-town New York. Sully hides his caring under a facade of obnoxiousness and minor criminal behavior. Still, he is the heart of a constructed "family" of the type of oddballs who populate Russo novels. Looking forward to the sequel.

Rules of Civility feels like Edith Wharton's House of Mirth set in the late 1930s. It's the story of Katey Kontent, a young working woman in New York City who by chance becomes involved with a group of upper class New Yorkers. Katey fares better than Lily Bart (perhaps the 30 years difference in the setting made the difference), but the descriptions of the city and the cultural mores of the various social groups were Whartonesque. An enjoyable read.

I am not a huge fan of Alice Hoffman, in large part because of the magical realism aspects of her books. Faithful is the story of Shelby, whose life fell apart when she was in a car accident that left her best friend in a persistent vegetative state. When Hoffman started describing how pilgrims came to the friend's home because they believed she had healing powers, I thought I was going to have to stop reading. But that story line just fizzled out (thankfully) and what Hoffman does in the rest of the book is demonstrate how a broken person can put herself back together. The details may not be all that original, but Shelby's story moved me.

Spectator Bird is, to my mind, one of Wallace Stegner's minor book. In it, retired literary agent Joe Allston is basically waiting to die in his lovely home in the hills above Palo Alto, much as his career was about waiting to retire. Then suddenly he receives a postcard from a Danish woman he and his wife met on a European trip decades earlier. Prompted by the card, his wife prevails on him to read his journals from the trip to her as "bedtime reading," both knowing that they will eventually get to the point where Joe was attracted to the "Countess," as they called her. The Countess' story is sordid and sad, but why both Joe and his wife should be harboring dark feelings they have never discussed is somewhat inexplicable. Still, Stegner's incredible writing makes the book worthwhile.

Historical novels set in 12th century England are not exactly my cup of tea, but when I read The End of Your Life Book Club a few years ago, I wrote down the books that author Will Schwalbe and his mother read together, and The Pillars of the Earth was one.  In a prologue, author Ken Follett describes his long fascination with old churches and cathedrals and how that obsession led to writing a book so different from his usual genre (suspense). The book is about the building of the cathedral at Knightsbridge, England--and the tangled lives of the people involved. The stuff about architecture is interesting, but the rest is just a soap opera, with a bit too much relish for scenes of violence, particularly sexual violence. The writing is also flawed (e.g., Follett uses vocabulary that is out of place in the time in which the book is set). Given that the book is over 900 pages, I feel like Will Schwalbe owes me one!

Young Adult
Side Effects May Vary, by Julie Murphy

Alice is a not-too-lovable teenager who, when diagnosed with leukemia, decides to wreak revenge on everyone who has ever wronged her. Then, a year later, she is in remission and having to deal with the fallout of her revenge bucket-list. Alice is not a sympathetic character and the off again/on again relationship with her friend Harvey is beyond my ken (perhaps I am just too old).

My Favorite Things, by Maira Kalman
Everybody's Got Something, by Robin Roberts

My Favorite Things has been rapturously reviewed--here is an example sentence from one: "From Maira Kalman . . . comes this beautiful pictorial and narrative exploration of the significance of objects in our lives, drawn from her personal artifacts, recollections and selections from the collection of the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum." Sounds delightful, right? Sadly (oops, that word keeps reappearing), the book did not move me in the least. In fact, it felt like the author/artist was trying too hard to delight. I wish I could have liked the book as much as other people did.

Everybody's Got Something is Robin Roberts' account of the life-threatening illness brought on by the chemotherapy she underwent after a breast cancer diagnosis. Her ability to fight through another terrible illness and grueling treatment while maintaining a positive spirit is truly admirable, but the book is not really worthy of her story. She is sometimes just too smarmy about her circle of beloved friends, family, and colleagues, and she repeats maxims from her parents over and over. I listed to the audio book, which Roberts narrates herself, and her delivery is overacted (though not sure how you can overact your own story). Perhaps the book would be  uplifting for someone going through a similar experience, but I was disappointed.

Pick of the Litter:  Faithful 

Favorite Passage 
As for Joe Allston, he has been a wisecracking fellow traveler in the lives of other people, and a tourist in his own. There has not been one significant event in his life that he planned. He has gone downstream like a stick, getting hung up in eddies and getting flushed out again, only half understanding what he floated past, and understanding less with every year.
Wallace Stegner in The Spectator Bird (Joe Allston describing himself)

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Giving Thanks for Books: November's Reading

November brought some really good books, some not-so-good books, some popular books that fell flat for me, and some books that made me question my own reactions.

After the Storm, by Linda Castillo
Black Irish, by Stephan Talty

I had missed a couple of Linda Castillo's Kate Burkholder mysteries so have been catching up on them. They're generally okay but not great; this one used an unplanned pregnancy as a plot device that was rather annoying, so definitely not my favorite.

Black Irish reminded me that a couple of decades ago, there were a number of crime novels/mysteries about the IRA and American supporters (as well as episodes of television crime shows); I haven't read a book with that particular focus for quite a while, but Black Irish goes there. Set in Buffalo, it is the story of a gifted but depressive detective, Abbie Kearney, who is investigating a murder involving friends and colleagues of her adoptive father, a retired Buffalo police officer. She is drawn deeper and deeper into the dysfunction of the Irish community, eventually solving not only the murder (which expands into five or six murders--I lost track) but the mystery of her parentage. Either I am naïve or this story is quite far-fetched.

The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes
My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante
Today Will Be Different, by Maria Semple
Silver Linings Playbook, by Matthew Quick
The Word for World Is Forest, by Ursula LeGuin
Children of God, by Mary Doria Russell
The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
The Painted Veil, by Somerset Maugham
The Last Anniversary, by Liane Moriarty

In The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes imagines the inner life of Russian composer Shostakovich, who endured censorship, reeducation, and a variety of other indignities under Soviet rule, while trying to maintain some degree of artistic integrity. The fear, humiliation, and self-loathing are palpable and, while we cannot assume this is what Shostakovich actually thought, it is a thought-provoking depiction of the effects of tyranny on the artist.

My Brilliant Friend is the first of the mysterious Elena Ferrante's much-ballyhooed Neapolitan novels. It is the story of the two bright young friends who face various challenges as one sticks to the academic path while the other veers off that path and marries young. Each is jealous of the other. Sound familiar? Yes, it sounds like a million other coming-of-age novels! Being set in a poor neighborhood in Naples post-World War II makes it slightly more informative but no more inventive or engaging. Furthermore, there are point-of-view problems--the narrator knows things she shouldn't--and it's clearly a set-up for a sequel, always annoying to me. Not recommended!

And, continuing the theme of "I just don't get it," Maria Semple's Today Will Be Different follows the pattern of her earlier bestseller Where'd You Go, Bernadette. A 30-something Seattle woman struggles with First World issues depicted in a manner intended to be humorous. Most of the action takes place in one day when protagonist Eleanor Flood discovers a former employee has become wildly successful, her child Timby feigns illness for the umpteenth time so he can leave school, and she suspects her husband is having an affair. Flashbacks provide background on her marriage, her career, which is now languishing (her graphic memoir is 8 years overdue), and her family. Some pieces of her story are sad, but she's an annoying character who puts her child in iffy situations while she runs off half-cocked. Sorry . . . this author is, in my view, seriously overrated.

I was recently at a dinner with a group of "book people," when one woman mentioned she doesn't read much fiction but really loves Silver Linings Playbook. I had never read the book because I found the movie somewhat annoying in that it seemed to be getting its laughs at the expense of the two people with mental illnesses. As is generally the case, the book was definitely better--Quick still finds humor in mental illness, but it somehow feels more like we are with the main character, Pat Peoples, than simply observing him. Quick also makes the reader feel that there is still hope for Pat. The dance competition is much less central to the book than it was to the movie, which is also a positive. I didn't love the book but it has caused me to think about how mental illness is depicted in fiction, so that's a positive outcome.

The Word for World Is Forest (great title!) is the third Ursula Guin that I've read--all at the urging of my son Kevin, who is infinitely more knowledgeable about the science fiction genre than I am. In comparison to the previous two--The Dispossessed and The Lefthand of Darkness--The Word . . . seemed very mundane to me. Humans from Earth have colonized the planet Athshe in order to harvest wood from its forests; in the process, they have destroyed the environment and enslaved the peaceful Athseans.  Eventually, the Athsheans rise up and reclaim their planet, but their nature is changed by the experience of violence. The book also suffered because I was reading Children of God at the same time--that book has some similar plot points but is much more complex. Overall, The Word for World Is Forest fell flat.

Children of God, on the other hand, I very much enjoyed. It's a sequel to Russell's The Sparrow, an excellent book about an ill-fated Jesuit-sponsored mission to the planet Rakhat. In Children of God, survivor Father Emilio Sandoz, who was subjected to sexual torture on Rakhat and has been reviled since returning to Earth, is trying to rebuild his life despite the loss of his faith. The order asks him to prepare another group of Jesuits for a second mission to Rakhat and he agrees. But then, just as he is about to be married, he is commandeered into the mission. Meanwhile, on Rakhat, another survivor of the mission, Sonia Mendes, is involved with the struggle between the two species that inhabit the planet--the subservient Runa and dominant Jana'ata. The plot is even more complicated and layered, but what is more notable is how Russell explores a variety of theological, sociological, psychological, and political themes. Highly recommended.

Also highly recommended is Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad. In Whitehead's imagining, the Underground Railroad is an actual subterranean railroad; as refugees from slavery ascend to ground level at various stops, they find different cultures and levels of development. For example, in South Carolina, the protagonist Cora, who has escaped from a plantation in Georgia, finds skyscrapers and a society nominally dedicated to the uplift of the "colored people"--not surprisingly, there is a sinister side to this apparently progressive approach. Cora also spends time in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Indiana--all dealing differently with the formerly enslaved. When I read about this book, I thought--as a friend said the other night--it sounded weird. But somehow Whitehead makes it all work, creating an engaging character, a spellbinding story, and a thought-provoking discussion of slavery and its aftermath. The Underground Railroad recently won the National Book Award--well-deserved!

The Painted Veil is a character study of a shallow but beautiful Englishwoman living in Hong Kong in the 1920s. Shockingly still unmarried in her mid-twenties, Kitty ties her fortunes to a scientist, Walter Fane, but is soon bored with her intellectual but not amusing husband. When Walter discovers that she is having an affair, he forces her to go to a cholera-infested area in China. There, she for the first time finds herself interested in something other than herself--she enjoys working with the children being cared for by nuns. However, she soon finds herself pregnant and widowed; she returns to England to seek shelter with her father. The book is often described as an affirmation of the human capacity for growth and change, but I'm not convinced of real growth on Kitty's part and unless you are particularly interested in the lives of British colonials in the Far East, I wouldn't recommend The Painted Veil.

My friend Suzy and I recently went to hear Liane Moriarty talk at the Tattered Cover; I found her as I expected from having read several of her books--sarcastically funny but also warm. When asked which of her books was her favorite, she equivocated but expressed some fondness for The Last Anniversary.  Ergo, I decided to read it. Like her other books, it has numerous quirky narrators and deals with serious topics (in this case post-partum depression) and relationships in a humorous way. Although I have found several of her books very funny, I found myself bothered by the humor in the last two I have read. Maybe they just aren't as effective--or maybe as I age, I'm just finding life more sad/less funny. It does have me questioning myself. But back to the book--Moriarty frames the book around the mystery of what happened to a young couple who disappeared during the Depression, leaving their daughter behind. Most readers will figure out the mystery fairly readily and perhaps become a little annoyed with the ongoing hints--however, at the end, Moriarty does throw in a twist that I did not expect--so kudos to her for a genuine surprise.

Turn of the Screw, by Henry James
Night, by Elie Wiesel

I remember seeing the movie version of Turn of the Screw many years ago and being pretty creeped out, but I had never read the book. Sadly, the book did not have the same impact. The story revolves around a young woman who is engaged to care for two orphaned children whose uncle wants to hear nothing about them once he hires someone to replace their previous governess, who died. The governess finds the little girl to be delightful, the little boy (who has been expelled from boarding school) somewhat less tractable. But soon enough, she realizes that the previous governor and her lover, a handyman around the estate, are visiting the children. And creepy events ensue. Perhaps I am harder to shock today or I knew too much about the story to find it scary. I also think the frame that James used--presenting it as a "ghost story" being told by a man to his friends--lessened its impact. Whatever the reason, Turn of the Screw was a disappointment.

Sadly, I also found myself less moved than I thought I should be by Night, Elie Wiesel's account of a young man's horrifying experiences in a Nazi concentration camp. The depiction of man's inhumanity to man is certainly beyond comprehension, but perhaps we have seen, read, and heard so much about the Holocaust that it ceases to shock. Perhaps it is peculiar to me and yet another sign of aging. But if it's more general, it's worth thinking about how we can keep our horror alive to prevent future genocides (somehow the recent election makes this seem timely).

Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela
The Road to Character, by David Brooks
Without You, There Is No Us, by Suki Kim
Why We Write, edited by Meredith Maran

Nelson Mandela is one of my heroes, and I hoped this biography (covering from childhood up to his election as president of South Africa) would give me some insight into how he maintained his positive spirit and staved off bitterness despite the travails he experienced. The book was definitely informative, particularly about the work and strategies of the ANC and others in the movement to end apartheid. Yet, I still don't understand Mandela's indomitability--perhaps I'm just not capable. I also wished he had talked more about what happened with Winnie--he claimed to have believed in her innocence, but nonetheless they divorced and she seems simply to have disappeared from his life. Again, he is probably too good to go into the details and I am venal enough to be interested. Not entirely fulfilling but worthwhile.

David Brooks is a conservative with whom I, not a conservative, often agree. Brooks found himself concerned about the imbalance of attention on "resume virtues"--achieving wealth, fame, and status--and our "eulogy virtues," those that exist at the core of our being: kindness, bravery, honesty, or faithfulness, focusing on what kind of relationships we have formed."  This, I think, is a very worthy concern, and Brooks approached it by examining how notable people whom he judged to focus more on eulogy virtues--Francis Perkins, Dwight D. Eisenhower, George Marshall, Dorothy Day, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and others--worked, sometimes struggled to develop character. At some point, I became a bit bored with the case studies, wishing there were fewer or that some might be contemporary figures. I actually preferred the parts of the book in which Brooks simply talked about aspects of character and its development. Overall, I have to give The Road to Character a thumbs-sideways review.

I recently heard Suki Kim being interviewed on NPR; she was complaining that her book about teaching in a school for privileged North Korean boys was being marketed as a memoir rather than a piece of brave (she was in North Korea under false pretenses) investigative journalism. She felt this was largely due to her being a woman. I had some sympathy for this argument, so I decided to read her book and guess what? It's a memoir! Yes, she did something dangerous. Yes, we do get insights into the effects of tyranny and leader-worship on people, especially young people. But she didn't really do any additional reporting outside of her life at the school and she didn't even seem to do any additional research. It's totally the story of her experience/her emotions . . . yes, it's a memoir. Interesting, but my sympathy for her dissipated.

Why We Write is a collection of interviews the editor did with 20 authors, ranging from Isabel Allende, Sebastian Junger, and Jennifer Egan to Jodi Picoult, Michael Lewis, and Terri McMillan (whose angry comments are my favorites). Maran asked them not just why they write, but when they are happiest, when they are saddest, tips for writers, etc. I found little new insight--most say they write because that's what they do, perhaps all they can do and their advice tends toward "just sit down and write." A few struck me as particularly over-confident (James Frey is notable here) but most seem quite unprepossessing. If you've never read any authorial reflections, this might be interesting; if you have, it's pretty mundane.

Pick of the Litter:  The Underground Railroad and Children of God

Favorite Passages:

What mattered was not so much whether a particular story was factually true, but rather, what it signified. Though it was also the case that the more a story circulated, the truer it became.

What could be put up against the noise of time? Only that music which is inside ourselves—the music of our being—which is transformed by some into real music. Which, over the decades, if it is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time, is transformed into the whisper of history.
All his life he had relied on irony. He imagined that the trait had been born in the usual place: in the gap between how we imagine, or suppose, or hope life will turn out, and the way it actually does. So irony becomes a defence of the self and soul; it lets you breathe on a day-to-day basis. . . .
However, he was no longer so sure. There could be a smugness to irony, as there could be a complacency to protest. . . If you turned your back on irony, it curdled into sarcasm. And what good was it then? Sarcasm was irony which had lost its soul.
Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time

Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.
Time enough for Cora to take stock of her journey from Randall and make a thick braid of her misfortunes. List upon list crowded the ledger of slavery. The names gathered first on the African coast in tens of thousands of manifests. That human cargo. The names of the dead were as important as the names of the living as every loss from disease and suicide and the other mishaps, labeled as such for accounting purposes, needed to be justified to employers. At the auction block, they tallied the souls purchased at each auction and on the plantations the overseers preserved the names of workers in rows of tight cursive. Every name an asset, breathing capital, profit made flesh. The peculiar institution made Cora into a maker of lists as well. In her inventory of loss, people were not reduced to sums but multiplied by their kindnesses, people she had loved, people who had helped her . . . the ones who disappeared . . .
Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad