Friday, September 12, 2014

Say Nice Things about Detroit, by Scott Lasser

David Halpert has taken a leave from his law firm in Denver to help his aging parents, who still live in suburban Detroit. He learns that his high school girlfriend Natalie and her older half-brother Dirk have recently been murdered, and he calls on her family to pay his respects. He becomes involved with their younger sister Caroline, who is visiting from Los Angeles.

Much to his own surprise, David decides to settle down in Detroit--since his son was killed in a car accident and he and his wife divorced, there is little to hold him in Denver. He gets a job at a Detroit firm, buys Dirk's home in a black neighborhood (David is white), and offers shelter to a young hoodlum whom Dirk tried to help before his death. When Caroline discovers that she is pregnant and a DNA test proves her husband is not the father, she too decides to return home to Detroit with her son.

Lots happens in Say Nice Things about Detroit, but the plot isn't what matters. Rather, it's the exploration of what can go right and wrong in individuals' lives in a racially divided and economically depressed city like Detroit and the search for home, to fill the holes that the trials of life have left in one's heart. I'm always surprised when a male author writes an essentially romantic book, but Say Nice Things about Detroit is also that--indeed the happy ending is a bit too pat, but the issues explored give the book depth as well.

Favorite passage:
He thought that if your neighbors wanted you around, then maybe you were home.

The Secret Place, by Tana French

In each of her titles, Tana French picks a secondary character from a previous book (always a Dublin cop) and makes them the primary character. Two books ago, I predicted that Detective Stephen Moran would be next--and I was wrong, but only by one book. I also mentioned that Stephen did not seem to have the serious personal problems the other members of the Dublin Murder Squad harbored--and he still doesn't (okay, he has a problem with intimacy, but it's not serious compared to what we've seen in the earlier books), which may be one reason this is my favorite French book to date.

Moran is at work in the Cold Case Squad when Holly Mackey, daughter of Detective Frank Mackey from Faithful Place, comes in carrying a clue to a year-old case. Chris Harper, a handsome student at a nearby boys school, was found dead on the grounds of St. Kilda's School, where Holly and her three best friends are boarders. The evidence is a card found on "The Secret Place," a bulletin board intended to subvert cruel websites by giving students a place to anonymously voice their insecurities, worries, dislikes, etc. The card sports a picture of Chris and the line "I know who killed him."

Stephen takes the evidence to the homicide detective on the case, Antoinette Conway, and the two head to St. Kilda's, where they will spend a grueling day investigating the eight girls (including Holly) who had the opportunity to kill Chris. The story of their investigation is intercut with a chronological account of the months before and after the murder, told from the perspectives of the eight girls, who comprised two tight-knit foursomes. French does an excellent job portraying the importance of friendship to teenage girls (and to cops), as well as their profound insecurities and potential for cruelty and manipulation. By focusing on the interrogations of the girls, she also demonstrates the importance of questioning style and intuition, as well as logic and evidence, to police work.

While there are some semi-supernatural elements to the story that didn't seem necessary, I thought this book's exploration of friendship and teenage angst elevated it above French's earlier works. Once again, French's prose sometimes sings and is always readable.

Favorite passages:
The Court [a shopping mall] pulls like a towering magnet and everyone comes. Anything can happen here, in the sparkling slice of freedom between classes and teatime; your life could lift right off the ground and shimmer into something brand-new. In the dizzying white light all the faces glimmer, they mouth words and crack open in laughs you can almost catch through the cloud of sounds, and any one of them could be the heart-stopping one you've been waiting for; anything you can imagine could be waiting for you here, if you turn your head at just the right second, if you just catch the right eye, if the right song just comes spinning out of the speakers all around you. Sugar-smell of fresh doughnuts drifting out from the kiosk, lick it off your fingers.

She hears all the voices from when she was little, soothing, strengthening: Don't be scared, not of monsters, not of witches, not of big dogs. And now. snapping loud from every direction: Be scared, you have to be scared, ordering like this is your one absolute duty. Be scared you're fat, be scared your boobs are too big and be scared they're too small. Be scared to walk on your own, specially anywhere quiet enough that you can hear yourself think. Be scared of wearing the wrong stuff, saying the wrong thing, having a stupid laugh, being uncool.. . . Be scared terrified petrified that everything you are is every kind of wrong. Good girl.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Letters to a Young Contrarian, by Christopher Hitchens

Audible from time to time offers a $10 coupon if you order a certain number of books at once. Then you have to find something that costs less than $10 on which to use your coupon. This is how I came to listen to two Christopher Hitchens works--Mortality, which I found interesting and admirable, and Letters to a Young Contrarian, which was dull enough to put me in a fugue state while listening. Perhaps it is because I am not young or am insufficiently contrary (unlikely) or not well educated enough to understand his allusions or appreciate his name-dropping. Perhaps it was the condescending tone of the narrator. Or perhaps there just wasn't much "there there." 

A few of the letters held my attention. As a civic educator who has spent a lot of time encouraging teachers to engage students in discussion of controversial issues, I enjoyed his appreciation of talking with those with whom you disagree: "Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence." His examination of humor and the notion of living "as if" were also interesting. Overall, however, this collection left me unmoved.

Favorite passage: 
. . . if you really care about a serious cause or deep subject, you may have to be prepared to be boring about it. 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Divergent, by Veronica Roth

My sister suggested that, as a political science major, I would be interested in the dystopian young adult novel Divergent, so I decided to give it a whirl. Since I assume anyone who is in the least interested in this book has already read it, I'm not going to bother with a plot summary and just make a few comments instead.

--I wish authors of dystopian novels would explain what happened to create the havoc and destruction that preceded the establishment of the post-apocalyptic society. Readers need the context to evaluate the situation in which the characters find themselves (IMHO).

--I found it interesting that the five factions were not formed because people who had the various characteristics were perceived as bringing value to the society but because people who lacked those characteristics were blamed for the ills that befell it. Unfortunately, it didn't really make sense that having just one value could be the solution to a society's problems--who would actually believe that? Furthermore, Roth did not explain why the boundaries between the factions were so impenetrable. There did not seem to be a logic to the system--it was just created for story-telling purposes (and I understand this is a story, but a story with internal logic would be better).  And why were those who had strength in more than one area called divergent?  Wouldn't they be convergent?

--It was interesting that the group chosen to wield governmental power was the abnegation (selfless) group--perhaps a commentary on the absence of that quality among our current leaders (but not necessarily a good choice for the polity).  The choice may also reflect the author's Christian beliefs, as may the choice of the erudite (intellectual class) as the evil-doers of the novel. While I saw a relevant message in the erudite manipulating the dauntless, I rebel at the notion that the educated are the ones a society should fear most.

--I really hate when a book is so obviously setting up a sequel (or two sequels in the case of the currently popular trilogies).

So did I hate Divergent? No, but I won't bother reading the subsequent books in the trilogy. I don't really care what happens to the society or, for that matter, to the main characters Tris and Four. I continue to be disturbed by the dystopic trend in YA novels--I guess they give young readers a chance to follow the exploits of heroes their own age, but at the same time they seem to pretty consistently present young people as victims of the societal structures that emerge following major ruptures in the social/environmental/governmental fabric. When I expressed this concern about the Hunger Games, only one other member of Novel Conversations agreed with me (and it might be said that others scoffed at the view as naive). Nonetheless, I hope a new trend for YA readers emerges soon.

Favorite passages:
"Welcome to the day we honor the democratic philosophy of our ancestors, which tells us that every man has a right to choose his own way in the world." Or, it occurs to me, one of five predetermined ways.

His absence will haunt their hallways, and he will be a space they can't fill. And then time will pass and the hole will be gone . . .

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Andrew's Brain, by E.L. Doctorow

Just today, E.L. Doctorow was awarded the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. I am thinking, however, that Andrew's Brain was not a big factor in his winning the award. Although the narration is sometimes third person and sometimes first, the book is apparently presented as a conversation between Andrew, a middle-aged brain scientist and his therapist, who may or may not be a government psychiatrist at a facility to which Andrew may or may not have been committed (I know there's a lot of uncertainty in this sentence, but that's how it was for me).

Andrew's life has provided plenty of material for him to relate to a therapist: he accidentally killed his first child by feeding the baby the wrong prescription (the pharmacist's mistake), his career has never really taken off, his second wife was killed in the 9/11 attacks, he has given his second child to his first wife to raise because he feels unable to care for her after her mother's death, etc. At the same time, his story has almost slapstick elements:  His second wife's parents were little people, which the author plays for laughs, albeit briefly. A longer section near the end of the book is devoted to the fact that George W. Bush was his college roommate; when the two meet by chance, Bush offers him a White House job that allows Doctorow to poke fun at Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney.

For me, the book just did not add up to anything, and the attempts at humor were tired and out of place. To make matters worse, I listened to the audio version, which was read by the author himself in what my son described as a "mopey" voice. Not recommended.

Favorite passage:
How can I think about my brain when it's my brain doing the thinking? So is this brain pretending to be me thinking about it?

Lucky Us, by Amy Bloom

The luck of the central character of Amy Bloom's latest novel, set in the 1940s, is mostly bad--though the serial abandonments she experiences at the hands of her loved ones probably don't truly qualify as luck. Eva is the illegitimate daughter of a married man, whose wife has recently died. Her mother decides to drive to his place to "see what might be in it for us." Determining there is nothing in it for her, the mother drives off, leaving Eva with father Edgar and half-sister Iris.

This is the start of a series of unlikely adventures in which teenage Eva generally plays a supporting role: She and Iris head for Hollywood so Iris can become a star; after a promising start, Iris's career is sabotaged by Hedda Hopper and another young actress with whom she had a romantic fling. Edgar, Iris, and Eva decide to move on to New York, along with Iris's make-up artist Francisco, where Edgar (formerly a college professor) and Iris pass themselves off as a butler and governess for a wealthy Italian family. Iris falls in love with the cook, Reenie. She reports Reenie's German-American husband Gus as a spy (he is not, but we learn of his travails, first in an internment camp and then in Germany, where he was "repatriated") and kidnaps an orphan to satisfy Reenie's baby-hunger. When Reenie is killed and Iris is injured in a fire, Iris leaves for specialized treatment in London . . . and doesn't come back. Once again, Eva is left behind, this time with a young boy to raise. Soon, Eva is also caring for her terminally ill father, who it turns out was not who he claimed to be. And on and on. There is some good luck in the people Eva meets along the way, but most of these relationships come and go. This makes the ending somewhat discordant for me, as it is extremely upbeat, with a lovely description of a photograph of the family that Eva has cobbled together.

To be honest, I don't quite know what to make of Lucky Us. It is, to some extent, a story of rising above one's circumstances, of persevering--yet the redemption comes so late that it felt inauthentic to me. I enjoyed Gus's story, but it seemed somewhat peripheral for much of the book. I love that the chapter titles are all the titles of songs of the era and the character of Clara, an African American jazz singer (who happens to have vitiligo) who becomes romantically involved with Edgar, is interesting and endearing--but she not only arrives late but leaves early. I guess I'll have to go with a "thumbs sideways" assessment.

Favorite passage:
He wanted to lick off her makeup, to kiss the perfect, bare Clara underneath. Clara thought that it would be good if he did; it would be cool water on her blistered heart if he did.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Fictitious Dishes, by Dinah Fried

Fictitious Dishes is an interesting little book that grew out of a design class project and became something of an obsession for the author. Always interested in the role food plays in novels, Fried has selected passages from literature describing meals and recreated those meals and the "place settings" in which they might have been served; thus, the food eaten by characters in Robinson Crusoe is pictured sitting in the sand. On each set of facing pages, the verso page presents the literary passage and a few pieces of trivia about the author of the passage, the food described, or another somewhat related topic. On the recto page is the photo of the author's recreation of the meal.

For me, the most beautiful of the photos depict outdoor settings--strawberries picked by Emma and her friends, potatoes and eggs in The Secret Garden, and a bucket of the title fruit in Blueberries for Sal. Some of the other photos are quite evocative--Moby-Dick and Lolita are two examples that spoke to me. The photo accompanying Maurice Sendak's Chicken Soup with Rice is marvelously unexpected. Although American Psycho was written in 1991, that photo beautifully depicts the artiness of modern cuisine. I found other photos rather bland--for example, while it may have been authentic, the picture of Proust's madeleines lacked visual interest, conveying none of the "precious essence" he found in their taste.

Fictitious Dishes is pretty much a gimmick--but I found looking through it fun.