Sunday, August 2, 2015

What is Novel Conversations reading?

Here's our slate of books for the upcoming months:

August--China Dolls, by Lisa See
September--Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons
October--One Book One Broomfield selection
November--One Thousand White Women, by Jim Ferguson
December--sharing favorite books from childhood and/or best book of the year
January--The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

Leaving Time, by Jodi Picoult

I find it hard to stop reading authors when I have "been with them" throughout their careers, even when their work has become tired/repetitive/etc. (I can do it, but it's a struggle.) Thus, I spent a good bit of yesterday reading this Jodi Picoult novel, which has many of the features of a standard Picoult novel: multiple narrators, a troubled family, and a current issue. The current issue in this case is the protection of elephants--from poachers in Africa and from zoos and circuses in the United States. The information about elephants is fascinating, especially the descriptions of their grieving, which happens to be the research focus of Alice Metcalf, the mother in the troubled family at the center of the story.

Alice disappeared 10 years ago, at the same time that another keeper at the family's private elephant refuge was killed; her husband has been in a mental hospital since. Their daughter Jenna, now 13, has decided to find her mother--or at least find out what happened to her. She enlists the help of a down-on-her-luck psychic and an alcoholic private investigator who had been a cop on her mother's case. The family story is fairly predictable until Picoult throws in a surprise near the end; normally, I like surprises, but because this one had to do with the woo-woo aspects of the story--in general, not my thing--I was quite unhappy. Once the secret was revealed, I could not help comparing the book to a popular movie of which it is quite derivative (I'm not naming the movie to avoid spoiling the book for others, although you might be able to guess--if so, sorry).

So did I like enough things about this book to say I'll read another Jodi Picoult? Perhaps--as long as it doesn't have a paranormal aspect!

Favorite passage:
In the wild we hear the pulsing, guttural musth rumbles of males--deep and low, puttering, what you might imagine if you drew a bow made of hormones against an instrument of anger.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Re Jane, by Patricia Park

Since I was never a big fan of Jane Eyre, it is perhaps surprising that I have in a fairly short span of time read two novels that are essentially retellings of that story. Half American and half Korean, Jane Re is an orphan who knows little about her parents, except that they disgraced her Korean family. Raised by her Korean aunt and uncle in Flushing, Jane is now a recent college graduate unable to find a job in finance. She is so anxious to get away from her uncle's oppressive household (not to mention his bodega Food, where she is expected to work until she finds a job), she signs on as an au pair in the Mazer-Farley household.

Beth Mazer is a college professor and not the most fun or flexible person around. She has prepared a voluminous "Primer" on the family and their practices that Jane must read in order not to make any mistakes in her care of Devin (like letting her have an Italian ice every day after school--gasp!). Beth takes Jane under her intellectual wing, assigning books for Jane to read and spending hours in her attic office (yes, the reference to the crazy wife is pretty obvious) lecturing Jane on feminist literary theories. Ed Farley is a high school teacher working on his dissertation, assigned one drawer in the refrigerator where he can keep the makings for sandwiches he makes for himself (and soon for Jane) every night after Beth and Devin are in bed.

The inevitable happens: Jane and Ed fall in love and Jane runs away to Korea where she learns the truth about her parents and almost marries a student in her English class. However, she eventually returns to New York, her best friend Nina, and Ed. To avoid spoiling the book, I won't reveal more.

Re Jane is essentially chick lit, but the cross-cultural aspect and the author's humor made it enjoyable nonetheless. The 9/11 element, on the other hand, seemed gratuitous. Still, a good beach read.

Favorite Passage:

I realized that was the internal logic of our family: Tear each other down before we step outside and face public humiliation.

Middlemarch, by George Eliot

I feel quite pleased with myself today as I finished listening to Middlemarch. Adding to my smugness is the fact that an old friend, a retired college English teacher, recently admitted she gave up on Middlemarch because there were too many characters (and the professor requiring the book died in the middle of the semester!). Making me feel slightly less self-satisfied is the fact that my son has been telling me to read the book for probably five years; I've had the book on my Kindle or iPad for that entire time and never read a word--only the availability of an audiobook got my going.

Middlemarch, set in the years from 1829-1832, does indeed have many characters and subplots, but four stories seem to have significance:

  • Dorothea Brooke, a bright young woman who chooses to marry an older clergyman because she believes him to be an intellectual whose work she can help with. When, on her wedding trip, she discovers that he has no interest in her help, she is crushed. However, she meets a young man on that same trip, Will Ladislaw, with whom she falls in love; her husband jealously writes in his will that she cannot inherit his property should she marry Will after the husband's death. 
  • Tertius Lydgate, a young doctor with dreams of advancing medicine. He marries the beautiful young Rosamund Vincy, but it is not a happy marriage. Nor does his practice go well; caught up in a scandal involving his wife's uncle, he eventually must leave Middlemarch to start over.
  • Mary Garth and Fred Vincy are a young couple who love each other; Fred, however, is a ne'er-do-well who seems destined to end up in the church, the apparent sinecure for young men of decent breeding but no wealth or particular talent. Mary, however, says she will not marry him if he enters the church, posing the question: What else can Fred do?
  • Nicholas Bulstrode, the afore-mentioned uncle of Rosamund and Fred, is the town banker. Although he puts forth a pious front, he has little empathy for others and has some serious bad behavior in his past. When a man from his past comes to Middlemarch, the resulting scandal has significant ripple effects.
Dorothea's story opens the book and when Eliot suddenly turns to another set of characters with little apparent relation to those who populate Dorothea's world, it is initially confusing--something like acclimating to a Robert Altman film. And, like one of those films, the stories of the diverse characters do eventually intertwine. These stories also reveal different facets of  Eliot's numerous themes; among the most significant of these are the restricted roles of women and the ways in which they respond to those restrictions, the nature of marriage, religion and its functions, the ways in which gossip and social class shape provincial life, and reform in various spheres.

The book is often quite funny, particularly when addressing the question of gender relations. To wit: "And, of course, men know best about everything, except what women know better" and "Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy." 

The third-person omniscient narrator also waxes philosophical with some regularity and many of these passages, which are in essence soliloquies from the author, are worthy of reflection (see Favorite Passages below for some truncated examples). While I could have done with fewer characters and even, perhaps, fewer chapters, I did find Middlemarch well worth the 25+ hours I invested in it (I listened to the Maureen O'Brien version at a slightly accelerated speed). 

Random Notes: The history of Middlemarch is interesting--it started out as two books, one about Dorothea and one about Lydgate. The two eventually were woven into one book that was published in eight parts published over the course of  a year. Published in 1872, the book was a historical novel, a fact often neglected or ignored. 

Favorite passages (too many to note--just a couple samples):
We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time; keep back the tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquiries say, "Oh, nothing!" Pride helps; and pride is not a bad thing when it only urges us to hide our hurts--not to hurt others.

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.

The wit of a family is usually best received among strangers.


Monday, July 20, 2015

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris

Paul O'Rourke is a dentist; he lives in Manhattan, loves the Boston Red Sox but resents the new fans who came to the team after their World Series victory in 2004, and is always searching for something that could be "everything." Damaged by his bipolar father's suicide, he longs to be part of a large close-knit family, like those of his one-time girlfriends (one family was Catholic, the other Jewish) but cannot commit to a relationship. He is an atheist prone to "Hitchensian rants" and treats the women who work for him horribly. In short, he's a sad human being.

Then Paul discovers that someone has created a website for his dental practice; his bio on the website includes strange quotations from a source called the Cantaveticles, apparently a sacred text of unknown origin. Soon, someone is posting comments under Dr. O'Rourke's name on a wide variety of websites. The posts claim O'Rourke is a descendent of the Ulms, ancient enemies of the Jews. Paul spends a great deal of his time on his "me machine" (smartphone) trying to figure out who has appropriated his online identity; eventually, he is drawn into a group of people who believe themselves to be descendents of the Ulms and who make a religion of doubt.

The book is an odd combination of funny (sometimes laugh-out-loud funny) and dull. I had read that the book was about identity theft, a topic I find interesting, but that is not how I would characterize it, which may have affected my response. I admit that whatever point Ferris is trying to make eludes me. For that reason and because the tedious parts of the novel (pretty much anything about the Ulms and religion, real or faux) outweighed the humor for me, I would not recommend To Rise Again at a Decent Hour.

Favorite passage

Baseball is the slow creation of something beautiful. it is the almost boringly paced accumulation of what seems slight or incidental into an opera of bracing suspense. . . . it's the drowsy metamorphosis of the dull into the indescribable.  [Somehow I suspect Ferris thinks this would also describe his novel, but the metamorphosis never quite happened for me.]

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow Sun is set in Nigeria/Biafra in the 1960s. The story of the ill-fated attempt to create an Igbo nation in southeastern Nigeria is told through the perspective of three characters. Ugwu is a village boy who is brought to the city of Nsukka to serve as the houseboy in the home of an academic, Odenigbo, who supports Biafran independence. The beautiful Olanna is from an elite Igbo family; having just returned from receiving her master's degree at a British university, she leaves her family in Lagos to live with Odenigbo, her lover. Richard is a British expatriate, who has come to Nigeria to study local art and write, becomes the lover of Olanna's twin sister Kainene; Kainene too has recently returned from graduate school in London, but she chooses to work in her father's business, which gives her a very different life from her twin.

The novel is historical/political--for American such as myself who remember the events in Nigeria/Biafra mainly as a black-and-white photograph of a starving African child, it's a worthwhile education in the events that transpired in that part of Africa--the conflicts among the Nigerians, the role of Great Britain, the United States, and other nations. The violence, hunger, and fear of the war years are shockingly, sometimes horrifyingly conveyed. But the book is about more than war--it's also about relationships, particularly Olanna and Kainene's relationship, but also each sister's relationship with their parents and their men and Ugwu's relationships with Olanna, Odenigbo, their daughter, and various young women in whom he becomes interested.

I found the first section of the book, narrated by Ugwu, to be somewhat slow going. When I got to the next section, narrated by Olanna, I thought that perhaps the author should have started with Olanna, who seemed to bring the book alive--but the reasons for beginning with Ugwu became clearer with time. Overall, I thought the book was definitely worth reading, although sometimes difficult to endure.

Favorite passages:

This was love. A string of coincidences that gathered significance and became miracles.

Richard exhaled. It was like somebody sprinkling pepper on his wound: Thousands of Biafrans were dead, and this man wanted to know if there was anything new about one dead white man. Richard would write about this, the rule of Western journalism: One hundred dead black people equal to one dead white person.

Hyacinth Girls, by Lauren Frankel

Hyacinth Girls is an exploration of adolescent friendships and bullying. Rebecca is 13-year-old Callie's guardian--her late mother's best friend (and a cousin of her late father). Rebecca is shocked when Callie's school reports that Callie was the perpetrator in a bullying incident. In fact, she refuses to believe it. But the truth of what is going on with Callie is complicated--and very frightening, as subsequent events reveal.

The book is told from both Rebecca and Callie's perspectives. Rebecca recounts events in the present, as she ruminates on her friendship with Callie's mother and everything that led up to her death and that of Callie's father. All of the family relationships seem tenuous/troubled, and Callie has a typical teenager's disdain for her guardian. Callie's story is told through a journal of her interactions with the girl she was accused of bullying; as they gradually reveal the "truth," the reader's sense of impending doom grows ever denser.

Hyacinth Girls reminded me of Reconstructing Amelia, as both have a similar theme--the world of teenage girls is terrifying and parents have no idea what is going on with their children. While there may be truth in those statements, reading stories designed to convey them isn't at all fun for the grandmother of an 8-year-old girl (and, perhaps because I'm in education, not really news either). The unlikeability of the characters and the somewhat leaden writing also contributed to my decision not to recommend this book.