Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Showers of May Books

I thought I was behind on work because I was busy this month, but now that I've looked at what I've read this month, I think it might be because I've been reading too much (is that even possible?).

Mysteries

Judgment Calls, by Alafair Burke
The Cruelest Month, by Louise Penney
The Bitter Season, by Tami Hoag
Try Not to Breathe, by Holly Sedden
Ripper, by Isabel Allende
A Kiss Before Dying, by Ira Levin

The first three titles listed here are series mysteries, okay but nothing to write home about. Try Not to Breathe, which is being hyped to fans of Gone Girl and Girl on a Train, lacks the suspense of those two books but does feature a rather unlikable protagonist, in this case alcoholic journalist Alex Dale. Alex happens onto Amy Stephenson, a young woman who has been in a vegetative state for 15 years following a brutal beating at the hands of a mystery assailant. Alex sets out to solve the case and does--though it's pretty hard to believe that someone who drinks to the point that she wets the bed could actually accomplish such a feat. Not recommended.

Also not recommended is renowned author Isabel Allende's attempt at a mystery. Allende weaves in numerous hot topics--child abuse, transgender issues, online gaming, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and their effects on veterans. But the story takes way too long to develop and frankly makes very little sense.

A Kiss Before Dying was Ira Levin's first novel, written in the early 1950s. It's the story of a young WWII veteran determined to be successful, by marrying a wealthy woman if necessary. In that pursuit, he works his way through the three daughters of a wealthy industrialist. While not as creepy as, say, Rosemary's Baby, A Kiss Before Dying is a frightening (though somewhat dated) portrait of a sociopath.

Classics

Herzog, by Saul Bellow
The Optimist's Daughter, by Eudora Welty

May was a bad month for me and classics (one might say most months could be described thusly). Left by his second wife, Saul Bellow's Moses Herzog, a failed academic philosopher, reflects on his life, and what a long and painfully narcissistic journey I found it. Laurel, Eudora Welty's heroine, is also dealing with a second wife, in this case the vulgar second wife of her father, Judge McKelva. Following the judge's death, Laurel confronts her memories and ponders why her husband married a woman so inferior to Laurel's mother. Neither of these "masterpieces" held any appeal to me. I am open to reeducation.

Fiction

American Housewife, by Helen Ellis
Among the Imposters and Among the Betrayed, by Margaret Peterson Haddix
Foreign Affairs, by Alison Lurie
The Quickening, by Michelle Hoover
Boston Girl, by Anita Diamant
Under the Influence, by Joyce Maynard
Alice and Oliver, by Charles Bock

American Housewife is a collection of satirical short fiction about the lifeways of American women of a certain ilk. One gets a sense of the tone from the titles: "How to Be a Grown-Ass Lady," "How to Be a Patron of the Arts," and "What do Do All Day." One of my favorites was "Hello, Welcome to Book Club"--in this book club, it turns out, new members are recruited to be surrogates for infertile members of the group. Not necessarily deep--but funny.

Among the Imposters and Among the Betrayed are the second and third books in the Shadow Children series beloved by my granddaughter. It's pretty amazing how complex the conspiracies in these books are--not sure I could have tracked them when I was a third-grader!

Foreign Affairs won the Pulitzer back in the 1980s and, though it's hard to believe it was the best novel of the year, it is a worthwhile look at two extremely different American academics doing research in the UK. Both are lonely and that loneliness may be the impetus of their two apparently unlikely love affairs. The examination of cultural differences between the US and UK and the curious relationships and pressures faced by academics were both interesting and amusing. I didn't love Foreign Affairs, but thought it was worth reading.

The Quickening and Boston Girl both feel like books I have read before--The Quickening is about the difficult lives of women on farms on the Northern Plains, Boston Girl about the difficult lives of immigrant women in the urban centers of the Northeast. Both are fine--but not fresh.

I should probably read every other book that Joyce Maynard writes, as I seem to only like alternate Maynard works. Under the Influence was one I didn't like--it's packed with annoying people and unbelievable situations and I don't really want to say any more about it.

I knew Alice and Oliver was a book about a marriage affected by the wife's illness. I didn't realize that the wife's illness was the same type of leukemia that a friend's husband is currently being treated for. Luckily, my friend's husband is handling the treatment more easily than the character Alice, because the description of what happens to Alice is horrific. Equally interesting and moving is the way in which author Charles Bock (whose first wife died of leukemia) talks about the stresses on the marriage and the long-term effects on the family. Recommended (but with a warning that it is harrowing).

Nonfiction

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Becoming Nicole, by Amy Ellis Nutt
This Town, by Mark Leibovich
Columbine, by Dave Cullen

Between the World and Me, winner of the National Book Award, is an essay about race, written in the form of a letter to the author's teenage son. It is in many ways a sad book (see quotes below), as Coates sees racism in America as so pervasive as to change the minds and threaten the bodies of young people of color, as compared to young people whose parents "think they are white." As a mother who thinks she is white and her sons are biracial, I did not find the content surprising or offensive (as many reader-reviewers evidently did). Although the book is fairly short, I did find it repetitive at some points. That flaw notwithstanding, it is worth reading--if you can do so with an open mind.

A friend gave me Becoming Nicole with the caution that she didn't think it was that good (now that I think about it, she's said that as she's given me several books--hmmm).  It may not be a great book--it's written in a very unemotional journalistic tone--but it's an interesting look into the experience of an "average" family dealing with the fallout of having a transgender child. I felt particular empathy with Nicole's twin brother, but the entire family conducted themselves admirably as they sought to have their daughter treated fairly in her school and community.

Mark Leibovich uses Tim Russert's funeral as a launching point for his "expose" of the stew of self-aggrandizement, influence-peddling, and sucking up characteristic of the politicians, political consultants/advisors, lobbyists, and media that forms the culture of Washington, DC. From time to time, the book is quite amusing, but I started to feel uncomfortable when I recognized to what extent  Leibovich is bound up with the culture he is mocking.

I had never intended to read Columbine, but when a friend told me she was reading it and was learning that a lot of what she believed had been proved wrong, I decided I'd give it a try. Perhaps because she lives in Chicago and I live in Denver, I discovered that I had known the myths were untrue for a long time. So it's interesting to me that people in other areas still believe some of the myths that were perpetuated by the media in the days and weeks following the tragedy. I did learn that the Jeffco officials were even more dishonest and unethical than I had known and was interested to read that the author found the Rocky Mountain News (now defunct) provided much more accurate coverage than the Denver Post. Worth reading.

Pick of the Litter: Alice and Oliver

Favorite Passages: 

My understanding of the universe was physical, and its moral arc bent toward chaos then concluded in a box.

I have raised you to respect every human being as singular, and you must extend that same respect into the past. Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dress-making and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone.

The galaxy belonged to them [white parents], and as terror was communicated to our children, I saw mastery communicated to theirs.


All from Between the World and Me

Saturday, April 30, 2016

April: Month of Blizzards and Books

When it's supposed to be spring but instead is snowing with some regularity (it's snowing RIGHT NOW), nothing could be better than wrapping up in a blanket and reading a book. Quality did not match quantity, so here's hoping May will bring better if fewer books.

Mysteries

Zero Day, by David Baldacci
Clawback, by J.A. Jance
Human Remains, by Elizabeth Haynes

Zero Day is the first in what is evidently a series featuring Army investigator John Puller, who is called to rural Virginia to find out who killed an entire family (the father of the family is military, which accounts for Puller's involvement). He uncovers a massive conspiracy, which is interesting but not the kind of thing that makes me love a mystery.

Clawback is the latest in J.A. Jance's Ali Reynolds series and involves Ali and her husband B. in ferreting out what happened to Ali's parents retirement savings and who killed multiple murder victims strewn around Sedona. Not the most engaging of Jance's mysteries but not horrible.

Human Remains is an intriguing book featuring police data analyst Annabel, who notices that an unusually large number of dead bodies are being found in their homes. The dead appear to be isolated--they have been dead for some time before anyone notices anything is amiss or misses them--and there is no evidence of foul play. Still, the numbers are so large that Annabel decides she should try to interest investigators in the case. Eventually, she does that--but she also falls victim to the villain in the case, Colin. Colin is fascinated with decay and has developed a method (we never learn exactly what it is, though it seems to be some form of hypnotism) that convinces people to go to bed and stop eating and drinking. Interspersed through sections from the perspectives of Annabel and Colin are brief accounts from those who have died. Very creepy and interesting.

Classics

Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut

Wow--what a crazy and funny look at humankind. The protagonist is a writer who is working on a book about what important people were doing on the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. In the course of researching his book, he becomes involved with the children of a scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project and ends up (briefly) the ruler of a Caribbean nation and a practitioner of Bokononism, a religion created by a calypso singer. An entertaining satire of religion, science, and modern life.

Fiction

The Maytrees, by Annie Dillard
Shine Shine Shine, by Lydia Netzer
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman
The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters
Among the Hidden, Margaret Peterson Haddix
Eligible, by Curtis Sittenfield
Golden Age, by Jane Smiley

Many of the Amazon reader reviews of The Maytrees verge on ecstatic. Sadly, I found the book eminently forgettable. In fact, I had to look at Amazon to remember what it was about--a couple marry, they have a child who breaks his leg, the man runs off with a "hippie-ish" friend, and the woman takes him in when he returns 20 years later needing care. I'm sure it's a weakness on my part--after all Annie Dillard is a highly respected writer--but this book made no impression on me.

Shine Shine Shine features Maxon, a brilliant scientist and astronaut who is clearly on the autism spectrum, his wife Sunny with whom he fell in love when they were both children, and their autistic son Bubber. Sunny (who has been bald since birth) has been working hard to be normal--in fact, to be an uber-suburban trendsetting mother. Pregnant with their second child, Sunny is furious with Maxon for going on a space expedition during the later stages of her pregnancy. And her fury seems justified, as things are not going at all well for Sunny--nor are they going too well for Maxon, as the mission is threatened and the crew may not survive. Shine Shine Shine has some fantastical elements that did not appeal to me but I concede that it is, by any standard, original.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane has been described as a fairy tale, which I guess is apt. After attending a funeral, a middle-aged man is driving around the area where he lived as a seven-year-old boy. In a dream/reverie, he relives the frightening and supernatural experiences of the period, when he was threatened by a wicked nanny and saved by a magical trio of women who lived nearby--a grandmother, mother, and daughter. I won't go into details other than to say if you ever have something that looks like a hole in your foot, be afraid, be very afraid. Fantasy is not my cup of tea and at the end of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I had the "Hunh?" reaction--but it held my interest.

I'm not sure what I expected from The Paying Guests, but it definitely surprised me. Frances Wray is a 26-year-old "spinster," living with her mother in the family home in 1922. Her two brothers were killed in World War I and her father also died, leaving the Wray women impoverished. To address their economic problems, they rent out the second floor of their London home to a young couple, Lillian and Leonard Barber. The Barbers are of the "clerk class," and Frances's mother does not deign to socialize with them. Frances, however, is drawn to Lillian and, as the two become more involved (warning/spoiler: if you are put off by descriptions of lesbian sex, stay away from this book), dark deeds and legal problems ensue. The depictions of class differences and how crimes were investigated and tried in the period between the wars are interesting, but Frances's near-constant mental agonizing and Lillian's whining become tiresome. By the end, I really didn't care what happened to them or anyone else.

This winter, by eight-year-old granddaughter got totally into a YA series called The Shadow Children, so I decided to give the first book--Among the Hidden--a try. It's set in a dystopic future when famine has caused the government to enact a two-child limit. Third children, like the protagonist Luke, must be hidden away at home. Although Luke has been able to play in the nearby woods, when the woods is destroyed to make room for a housing development, Luke can no longer leave the house. Watching out the attic window, however, he sees a girl in one of the new homes and decides she, too, is a hidden child. When the two become friends, Luke learns Jen is something of an online rabble-rouser, organizing a protest she thinks can bring about change. Things do change, but not as she expected. The book seems dark for a third-grader, but it's an interesting premise that again (as in the Hunger Games) makes young people pay for the mess adults have made.

If you love Pride and Prejudice (as I do), you may enjoy Curtis Sittenfield's modern adaptation, in which Mrs. Bennett is a shopaholic hoarder and the Bennett girls are involved with, among other things, donor insemination, reality TV, a transgender Crossfit trainer, and bowling. Eligible is silly and predictable, but it's also kind of fun.

Golden Age is the final volume in Jane Smiley's Last Hundred Years trilogy. Like the first two books in the trilogy, it takes us year by year through some "highlights" in the lives of multiple generations of the Langdon family, whose roots are in Iowa farmland. The book covers the years from 1987-2019 and engages family members with many of the big events of the time period--global warming/climate change is a major theme,but GMOS and other changes in farming, financial scandals of various types and eras, 9/11, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan all affect the family as well (unfortunately, the Langdon family, while engaged in many current events, seems little interested or concerned about the racial problems that confront the United States--Ferguson, Eric Garner, and Charleston are one-sentence references). Smiley predicts a dismal short-term future for the United States, primarily due to climate change. Because there are so many characters, I once again found it challenging to care deeply about any of them. Not Smiley's best work (although the writing often offers its own rewards).

Nonfiction

The Oregon Trail, by Rinker Buck
About Alice, by Calvin Trillin

I know several people who loved The Oregon Trail, Rinker Buck's account of driving the historic trail in a covered wagon pulled by a mule team, with  his brother as company. I found some parts of the book entertaining, but it's too long, in large part because Buck doesn't seem to have an editing capability. He feels compelled to tell everything he learned as he prepared for and took the trip--I, for one, don't need to know as much about mules as he conveys. I struggled to finish the book.

About Alice, in contrast, is a very brief book, essentially a love letter from Calvin Trillin to his late wife. It's sweet and heartening to a cynic like me to see that love can endure. Overall, however, it didn't tell me anything more than that.

Pick of the Litter: Human Remains, by Elizabeth Haynes (not great literature--but engaging)

Favorite Passages

"I'm not strange to myself, but I realize that I contrast with others fairly sharply."

If your life remained in your mind, complex and busy, full of what you had read as well as what you had done and whom you had met, you could carry it into the future, and it would all, somehow, flow together.

Both from Golden Age, by Jane Smiley

Friday, April 1, 2016

A Potpourri Topped with an Excellent Mystery

I often exhort myself to stop reading mysteries--so many of them just aren't very good. But somehow I can't make myself give them entirely (though I don't read as many as I used to)--and when I come across a good one, I'm reminded why I started reading mysteries in the first place.

Mysteries
What She Knew, by Gilly Macmillan
What Was Mine, by Helen Klein Ross
The Quality of Silence, by Rosamund Lupton

What She Knew is  told in retrospect by two narrators--the mother of an eight-year-old boy who goes missing when they are walking in the woods and the police officer  in charge of the investigation (he's writing the story out for his therapist). Their stories are interspersed with the therapist's notes and media stories, which add even greater complexity to the narrative. The "mystery" itself is not unique but Macmillan tells it so well, with excellent character development, solid writing, and an interesting structure, that What She Knew holds your attention from first page to last.

What Was Mine illustrates that the story of child abduction is not unique, as it too is the story of a child abducted, this time an infant taken from an Ikea store. It too has multiple narrators, but the story belongs primarily to Lucy, the abductor, who also happens to be a very successful ad executive who hires a nanny to do much of the actual care of "her" child. Because the child's birth mother is not always portrayed positively, I began to feel like Helen Klein Ross was trying to make us empathize with a child abductor. I wasn't able to do that and it made reading What Was Mine somewhat uncomfortable. I guess that's an authorial achievement, but it made me wish I hadn't read the book.

Several years ago, I picked Rosamund Lupton's Sister as my favorite mystery of the year, so I approached The Quality of Silence with enthusiasm. Unfortunately, it is so completely unbelievable that I couldn't even enjoy the parts that are done well (descriptions of the Arctic tundra in Alaska, the depiction of a hearing-impaired child's thinking and frustrations). To illustrate the utter implausibility of the story: a British woman who brings her daughter to Alaska to visit their photographer husband/father ends up driving an 18-wheeler across the ice-surfaced Dalton Highway in mid-winter (no, she's never driven a truck before). Please.

Classics
Howard's End, by E.M. Forster

Howard's End is the source of the epigrammatic "Only connect," which represents the philosophy of protagonist Margaret Schlegel. She and her sister Helen are upper-class English women who spend their time attending concerts, traveling, and attending discussion groups. At one concert, they happen to meet a working man, Leonard Bast, with whom their lives will be forever entangled. On a trip to Europe, they meet the Wilcox family, with whom they will also be entangled. The Wilcox family owns the country home Howard's End, which the surviving members of the Wilcox family do not appreciate. The entanglement of the Schlegels with Bast and the Wilcox family allows Forster to explore several themes, including country vs. city living and how urbanization was affecting British life, class differences and the responsibility of the wealthy for the poor, and the meaning of home. Of course, Howard's End is a classic, but it did not move me personally (despite an excellent reading by Emma Thompson), at least in part because the characters seemed more like they were written to represent ideas than actual people.

Fiction
The Guest Room, by Chris Bohjalian
The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, Katarina Bivald
Who Do You Love, by Jennifer Wiener

In The Guest Room, Richard Chapman, a happily married money manager, hosts a bachelor party for his younger and wilder brother; the brother's friend hires two prostitutes who turn out to be sex slaves--and things go downhill, way downhill from there. Richard's life gets out of control so quickly that it's mind-boggling, but also a cautionary tale on the precariousness of life. Not optimistic in any way.

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend has gotten a lot of ink, but I don't quite understand why, as it's an essentially silly story. A young out-of-work Swedish woman named Sara travels to Broken Wheel, Iowa, only to discover that the pen pal Amy she is going to meet has died and the town is pretty close to expiring as well. Of course, she decides to start a business (without a proper visa) selling Amy's books, manages to revitalize the town and the collection of off-beat characters who live there, and falls in love. Bivald's book only seems tolerable in comparison to Jennifer Wiener's sappy Who Do You Love, about which I cannot bring myself to say more.

Nonfiction
My Beloved World, by Sonia Sotomayor
The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell
Grandma Gatewood's Walk, by Ben Montgomery
Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice, by Adam Makos

My Beloved World is the story of Justice Sotomayor's life before she became a member of the Supreme Court, with emphasis on her childhood and her years in college. Her childhood was far from easy--her father was an alcoholic who died young, her mother was hard-working but emotionally distant, she herself was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes, a very serious illness at the time. She worked hard in school and was able to gain admittance to Princeton, followed by Yale Law School. Her time in college was not without challenges, however, as she realized that high school had not prepared her for the kind of thinking that was expected in elite colleges. At the same time, she had to work to feel at home in these privileged environments and to build friendships; she became an activist for causes related to Latino students, faculty, and staff. She touches upon her early career in the DA's office and in private practice, but tells us little about her work as a judge and nothing about the Supreme Court. This is disappointing for SCOTUS followers but hardly surprising, given that institution's penchant for secrecy. Overall, My Beloved World is an enjoyable read.

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell looks at what causes rapid change, whether in fashion or more significant areas such as reduction in crime rates or increase in smoking among teens. Gladwell essentially identifies three factors: the context, the "stickiness" of the idea, and whether the people involved are "connectors, mavens, or salespeople." The examples are interesting, but the book does not seem as ground-breaking as it was considered when it was published; of course, that might be because it was published in 2002.

Grandma Gatewood's Walk is the story of a woman who decided to walk the Appalachian Trail when she was 67 (the author repeatedly refers to her as elderly or old--annoying!). Completely unprepared for the rigors of the hike (in part due to false advertising), Gatewood nonetheless managed to walk the entire length of the trail in the summer of 1955, persevering (she survived an abusive husband and raising 11 children so her strength was undeniable) and relying on the kindness of strangers. As her trek continued, she drew national press attention, which helped to increase interest and investment in the trail. An engaging yarn.

The Korean War is often called the "Forgotten War," so it was interesting to read Devotion, a book about the Korean War. The book focuses on two Navy pilots, Tom Hudner, a white pilot from a privileged background, and Jesse Brown, the Navy's first African American pilot, who was from a hardworking but not well-off Southern family. The book tells their back stories as it progresses toward an extended description of the battle at the Chosin Reservoir. Author Adam Makos does provide a lot of historic information about the war and Tom and Jesse's story is touching, but their relationship feels less like a friendship, as claimed in the book's subtitle, than mutual respect and admiration among teammates. In addition, the book in telling this one story presents a very rosy view of the racial integration of the military, a process that was actually lengthy and much more difficult than presented here.  Okay for those who like to read about the history of wars, but not for the average reader (a group in which I'd include myself).  


Pick of the Litter: What She Knew

Favorite Passage

. . . I watched the grainy night contours of my garden morph slowly into a strangely lit morning where the rising sun tinted the pendulous clouds so that they were not entirely black, but colored instead with bruised fleshy tones, burnished in places. It was the kind of light that nobody would mistake for hope.

From What She Knew, by Gilly Macmillan

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Shakespeare as a Plot Device . . . This Month's Fad

Is it possible for a sixteenth-century writer to be a twenty-first-century fad? Yes, apparently it is, as books that make Shakespeare and Shakespeare scholars an element of their plots seem to be trending . . . at least on my book list. The fad started in January with Small Blessings and continued this month with several items discussed in Fiction below.

Mysteries
Breakdown, by Jonathan Kellerman
Find Her, by Lisa Gardner

These titles are both the latest releases in long series. The Kellerman book, featuring child psychologist Alex Delaware, starts very slowly, as Alex is called in to help a psychotic actress whose son he evaluated several years previously. When she is found dead, he launches his own investigation, eventually drawing his buddy Police Lieutenant Milo Sturgis into the case, which gradually grows more complex and involves multiple murders. Not great but not bad either. The same could be said of Gardner's latest D.D. Warren book, in which the Boston detective is searching for Flora Dane, a woman who was kidnapped and held captive for over a year and has now been kidnapped again while serving as a consultant to a dad whose daughter is missing. Far-fetched but still moderately entertaining.

Fiction
Still Time, by Jean Hegland
The Bookman's Tale, by Charlie Lovett
The Rent Collector, by Camron Wright
Purity, by Jonathan Franzen
Language Arts, by Stephanie Kallois
The Secret Chord, by Geraldine Brooks
Kissing in America, by Margo Rabb

Still Time is my favorite of the Shakespeare books. It focuses on a Shakespeare scholar whose fourth wife has put him in memory care due to his worsening dementia; at the same time, she encourages his daughter, from whom he has been estranged for a decade, to make an effort to reconnect. The story goes back and forth in time, helping us understand John's relationship, his life as a scholar who blames his daughter for blowing his one chance to vault into the academic "big time," and the frightening state of his mind as his dementia deepens--often he can quote long passages of Shakespeare but cannot remember why he chose that passage or the identity of the young woman he is talking to. I found Still Time to be profoundly moving.

In The Bookman's Tale,  Charlie Lovett examines the mystery of who wrote the Shakespeare ouevre. The novel's protagonist, Peter Byerly is an antiquarian book dealer who moved to England after being widowed. Trying to track down the source of a 100-year-old painting of a woman who looks exactly like his late wife, he becomes involved in investigating the provenance of several documents that might shed new light on the Shakespeare controversy. The book bounces between the present in which these events are occurring, ten years previously when he and his wife were falling in love, and centuries earlier when the documents were created. Although there's a twist at the end that is utterly unbelievable, overall the book is entertaining.

The Rent Collector probably shouldn't be included in the Shakespeare fad because the bard is only mentioned as one of a number of writers whose works inspire the two heroines of the book--a young wife and mother living in a Cambodian dump, where her husband scavenges to support their family and the title character, whom the young woman convinces to teach her to read. The process changes both of their lives. The author's son made a documentary about living in the dumps, which inspired Camron Wright to pen this book, which presents interesting background on the Khmer Rouge and conditions in Cambodia and covers intriguing themes, like the power of stories and traditional vs. Western medicine (the young mother has a sick child). Somehow, however, the book doesn't quite feel authentic. This feeling may have been strengthened by the fake Asian accent that the narrator of the audible book chose to employ in reading the book.

Jonathan Franzen is not one of my favorite authors, but I always feel compelled to read his books because they garner so much publicity. Purity has some of the same features as Franzen's earlier novels The Corrections and Freedom--multiple points of view, nonlinear plotting, a section that is someone's autobiography or memoir, engagement with current issues (here journalism vs. hackers/leakers such as Assange and Snowden), sexist portrayals of female characters. I found the first part of the book boring and the rest repellent--I don't even want to waste time describing its characters, plot, and themes. Read it if you love Franzen and avoid it if you don't.

Language Arts is the story of a couple, Charles and Allison, whose marriage was destroyed by the inevitable conflict that raising an autistic child causes. They try to work together to make good decisions about their son Cody's care, but it's difficult. Charles is a teacher who lives alone now that his daughter Emily has gone to college, and he writes her lovely long letters. One of Charles's students begins a project that involves both Cody and a former nun with dementia (perhaps dementia is also a theme) who often relives the years of World War II in her mind. Without going into depth but Charles and the nun have a deep attachment to the Palmer handwriting method, which is used to surprising effect in the story. Although the book is sometimes painfully sad, it is also hopeful, and I recommend it highly.

I loved Geraldine Brooks's first three novels, but her more recent ones have not enthralled me. The Secret Chord is the story of King David, narrated by his prophet Natan. My religious education (and practice) stopped in about 1968, so I'm hardly qualified to judge whether Brooks gives David a fair treatment. I will say that the story features murder; unceasing war; rape and abuse; plotting against friends, foes, and family; and a variety of other nefarious acts. Suffice it to say that bringing David to life, as many reviews claim the book does, seemed a pointless effort to me.

Kissing in America is a charming coming-of-age story. Sixteen-year-old Eva's father was killed in a plane crash two years ago and not only will her mother not talk about him, she is dating the charmless Larry. Craving love and attention, Eva falls in love with the enigmatic Will; when he moves to California, she cooks up a scheme that involves her and her best friend Annie taking a bus trip to LA, ostensibly so Annie can be on a quiz show for smart girls but really to see Will. Naturally, the bus trip provides numerous adventures, both the quiz show and rendezvous with Will are disasters, and Eva and her mother achieve some rapprochement. Predictable--but still entertaining.

Other
Unforgettable: A Son, A Mother, and the Lessons of a Lifetime, by Scott Simon

I love the way Scott Simon tells stories on NPR. In Unforgettable, he's telling his mother's story; as Patricia lies dying in a Chicago hospital, they reminisce about her unconventional life and his childhood. Chapters start and end with tweets that Simon sent out from her hospital room; while the tweets evidently engendered some considerable criticism, I liked their use as bookends. Simon doesn't tread new ground with his account of maternal death; nonetheless, I found the book affecting.
 

Picks of the Litter: Still Time and Language Arts

Favorite Passages:
Memory--uncorrected, uncorroborated, and (by its very nature) unreliable--is what allows us to retroactively create the blueprints of our lives, because it is often impossible to make sense of our lives when we're inside them, when the narratives are still unfolding: This can't be happening. Why is this happening? Why is this happening now. Only by looking backward ae we able to answer those questions, only through the assist of memory. And who knows how memory will answer? Who will it blame? Who will it forgive?

From Language Arts, by Stephanie Kallos

We don't become the people we are all at once. But if we are lucky, every love, laugh, and loss puts a wrinkle in our hearts to make us distinctive.

From Unforgettable, by Scott Simon

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Dreary Days of February

Although it was snowing as I began writing this (it took me a good 24 hours to finish--the snow is now gone), except for a blizzard the first week of the month, February has been anything but dreary, with temperatures getting up to the low 70s here in Denver. February reading, however, has featured a rather wearisome "mini-theme" of hospitalization and illness. By the third book featuring extended time spent in a hospital, I was feeling rather ill myself. Luckily, not everything this month has fallen into this theme.

Mysteries
Back of Beyond, by C.J. Box
Long Gone, Alafar Burke

I stopped reading C.J. Box's Joe Pickett several years ago because it had gotten too dark and violent for me, but I decided to try the first book featuring a different character, Cody Hoyt. Montana lawman Cody has a lot of personal problems--alcohol being foremost among them--but he is relentless when his AA sponsor is found dead. The trail leads into Yellowstone National Park, where Cody's son is on a wilderness trek with his stepfather--and at least one murderer. Back of Beyond is kind of combo mystery-Western and, though not for me, I can imagine this "manly mystery" would be entertaining for many readers.

In Alafar Burke's stand-alone thriller, unemployed gallery worker Alice Humphrey suddenly gets an unbelievably great job offer . . . and just as quickly finds a dead body in her new place of employment. As she realizes she has been set up, Alice must figure out who is behind the plot before the police arrest her. The story is so convoluted, it lost me rather quickly. Although I like Burke, I wouldn't recommend this book.  

Memoirs
The Ogalalla Road, by Julene Bair
A Fighting Chance, by Elizabeth Warren
Anchor and Flares, by Kate Braestrup

Julene Bair came to a Novel Conversations meeting several years ago to discuss her earlier memoir, One Degree West, and she was interesting and charming. Her new memoir, The Ogalalla Road, is subtitled A Memoir of Love and Reckoning. It recounts two of her past (failed) relationships --though she says little about her current long-standing marriage--as well as her struggle to reckon with her family's role in farming the Plains in a way that has contributed to depletion of the Ogalalla aquifer. Also woven into the story are the challenges of raising her son as a single parent. There is much that is interesting in the book, but I am too linear to discern all the connections and metaphors that she finds between the various threads of her story. I also found (am I becoming an old fogey?) that I didn't enjoy hearing about the challenges of her sex life with her lover Ward.  Somehow, reading sex scenes among fictional characters is better than reading about the author's own sexual experiences.

Elizabeth Warren's A Fighting Chance confirmed all the reasons that I already liked her, most notably that she seems to be one of the few people who entered politics to help people, From humble beginnings and challenging young adulthood (a too-early marriage), she constructed a good life of teaching and public service, at times sacrificing a simpler, more satisfying life to take jobs that she believed would advance the common good. I only wish that it were she and not Bernie Sanders who was leading the campaign to make the economy work for more than the super-rich. In other words: Warren for President!

Kate Braestrup is a chaplain to the warden service in Maine. She is also the mother of a blended family of six children who found herself alarmed when her oldest son Zach decided to join the Marines straight out of high school. That alarm prompted this book, which is a reflection on parenting, peril, and service. Braestrup has a good sense of humor (wouldn't you have to with six children?), a strong commitment to service, an ingrained optimism, and a way with words, so the book can take you from laughter to admiration to tears in the space of a few pages. I'd recommend the book--but read her earlier memoir Here If You Need Me first.

Fiction
Fortune Smiles, by Adam Johnson
Three Wishes, by Liane Moriarty
My Name Is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout
Inside the O'Briens, by Lisa Genova
All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews

Fortune Smiles won the most recent National Book Award and it is indeed an impressive collection. Its six short stories are set in very different times and places but all are melancholy (the title, which refers to a rigged North Korean lottery game, is misleading). My favorite story, "Interesting Facts," is narrated by a woman with cancer, a woman whose husband sounds very much like Adam Johnson. "Nirvana" also features a sick wife (I believe the mini-theme started here) but is narrated by her husband, who has created a hologram of the recently assassinated president--people can download the hologram and chat companionably with the dead president, and many are doing so. In the title story, Johnson returns to Korea, the scene of his Pulitzer-winning novel The Orphan Master's Son, telling the story of two defectors from North Korea trying to adapt to life in the South. The other stories feature a UPS driver whose son was dropped off in his truck post-Katrina, the former warden of an East German prison, and a child pornographer. Yes, there's a creepy factor, but the stories are nonetheless well-done.

Liane Moriarty has a gift for making life seem funny, even when it goes horribly wrong. Three Wishes is the story of triplets whose lives may be a bit overly entwined. Cat's husband is having an affair with the sister of Gemma's boyfriend. Hyper-organized Lyn is opting not to get pregnant because Cat has had a miscarriage and Lyn does not want to hurt her feelings; meanwhile, Gemma learns she is pregnant and decides to give the baby to Cat. Meanwhile, their long-divorced parents are dating . . . each other. Moriarty uses a third-person observer device throughout the book to show what other people thought of the triplets at various stages of their lives; she used a similar device in Big Little Lies, but it worked better there because there was a reason (a police investigation) for outsiders to be commenting. Here, the device falls flat--but the book is still a fun read.

My Name Is Lucy Barton kicked the hospitalization/illness mini-theme into high career. Lucy Barton has gone into the hospital for minor surgery and ends up stuck there for two months. During that time, her mother comes to visit her, the first time they have seen each other in years. The visit prompts Lucy to reflect on her hard-scrabble childhood in rural Illinois and her relationship with her mother. The book has the feeling of a memoir, with Lucy recollecting her time in the hospital from many years in the future (but of course it's fictional); I'm not sure why Strout used that structure and I didn't think it was very effective. In addition, I would have liked to see other relationships besides that of Lucy and her mother explored. This is probably my least favorite of Strout's books--but feel compelled to say that a FB friend (a retired English prof) posted today about how much she liked this book, so others have a different view!

Inside the O'Briens involves less hospital time, but lots of illness. Joe O'Brien is a Boston police officer who discovers he has Huntington's Disease, which rather quickly ends his career and limits his mobility. Meanwhile, his four children must decide whether to find out if they have the gene that means they will develop the disease and how to live their lives no matter what their decision. This book feels like it was written not as a compelling story but as a way to teach about Huntington's. While that's a laudable goal, it doesn't make for a great novel.

All My Puny Sorrows returns readers to the hospital--this time to the psych ward, where the narrator's sister, Elfrieda (a talented concert pianist), is being treated following a suicide attempt. As the narrator Yoli juggles caring for her sister in Winnipeg and her children in Toronto and New York, she also is considering whether she will help Elf commit suicide by taking her to Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal for the mentally ill. The book is well-written, the characters well-developed, and the dilemmas authentic--and that's what makes the book so very painful. I think All My Puny Sorrows is a good book, but I would only recommend reading it knowing in advance that's it's not going to be easy.

Other
Fed, White, and Blue, by Simon Majumdar
My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes that Saved My Life, by Ruth Reichl

When Simon Majumdar, the British/Indian food critic and judge on various Food Network shows, decided to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, his wife suggested he needed to see more of the country. He took up the challenge, giving the journey a food theme, and Fed, White, and Blue is the result. The book is mildly amusing but his "take-aways" are pretty mundane--basically, he learned that there are friendly people and good food all around the United States. He briefly touches on some food-related problems, but leaves them rather quickly for more upbeat tales. One note: I listened to this book; Majumdar's voice and British accent are so distinctive that the narrator's American accent was disconcerting if not offputting.

My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes that Saved My Life is a thoroughly lovely book. Although Reichl refers to it as a cookbook, it's so much more. It's a collection of recipes that Reichl made in the year after she lost her job as editor of Gourmet when the magazine folded. It's also a journal of that year, interspersed with tweets that she sent as she went through the process of grieving her job and finding new directions. I found these impressionistic and evocative missives to be like little poems (see examples in "Favorite Passages" below). On top of all of that, the book is illustrated with wonderful photographs by Mikkel Vang. Yes, there is food porn, but there are also pictures of Reichl at work in her kitchen and at her writing desk, as well as photos of the natural beauty surrounding Reichl's home in upstate New York. I've read the book, but I plan to look through it many more times (I got it from the library, but may end up buying a copy).

Pick of the Litter:  My Kitchen Year

Favorite Passages

Sun coming up. Hawks hovering outside. Dancing in the kitchen with gnocchi and the blues. Good way to start a Sunday.

Up early. Vast rose sky, cloud wisps. Wood thrush calling. Cool cucumber soup. Lemon vebena. Threads of mint. Day starts well.

From My Kitchen Year, by Ruth Reichl

Suffering, even though it may have happened a long time ago, is something that is passed from one generation to the next to the next, like flexibility or grace or dyslexia. My grandfather had big green eyes, and dimly lit scenes of slaughter, blood on snow, played out behind them all the time, even when he smiled.

From All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews

Bad things happen but the world isn't ending. No bang, no whimper, no sudden fix, just this long, slow slog we're all taking together toward the next shining, inevitable miracle.

From Anchor and Flares, by Kate Braestrup

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Finishing Anna Karenina . . . and Other Late January Achievements

Well, to be honest, there weren't many other late January achievements, as I didn't get too much reading done while traveling the last week of the month. However, finishing Anna Karenina was a high point!

Mysteries
Tricky 22, by Janet Evanovich
In a Dark, Dark Wood, by Ruth Ware

I had planned never to read another Stephanie Plum mystery, as they have become tedious (how often can a blown-up car be funny?), but this one was available as an audiobook via OverDrive and I fell for it. Shouldn't have!

In a Dark, Dark Wood has gotten a lot of ink--treated as a successor to Gone Girl and Girl on a Train. Unfortunately, it doesn't deserve that attention, as the plotting is not as creative or tight as in either of those books, the structure is not as interesting, and the suspense is lukewarm (and I say this not being the biggest fan of Flynn's and Hawkins' books). The protagonist of In a Dark, Dark Wood, Leonora, is invited to a "hen weekend" (British version of a bachelorette party) for a childhood friend she has not spoken to in a decade--and she hasn't been invited to the wedding, meaning she doesn't know who Clare is marrying, a fact that turns out to be important. The weekend is being held in a remote lodge in a forest--where there is no cell service and, as a number of weird things start happening, the landline stops working too. So why would Nora go to this weekend? And why would she stay when things got ugly and contact with the outside world was impossible? And why are people, including me, reading this book? Those are the real mysteries.

Classics
Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

The first surprise in Anna Karenina--besides the recognition of just how long it is (almost 1000 pages)--was that Anna did not actually appear until quite a ways into the book. I had foolishly expected her to be the sole focal point of the book--but it is a Russian novel after all. As the novel opens, we learn she will be arriving in Moscow soon to intervene with her brother Stepan Oblonsky's wife Dolly, who has learned of his affair with the family's governess and is in a state. We also meet the character who turns out to be an equal to Anna in importance in the book--Konstantin Levin, a landowner who is in love with Dolly's sister Kitty. Kitty, however, is in love with Count Vronsky, who will eventually become Anna's lover, for whom she will leave her husband and eventually ruin her life. While Anna Karenina, like the few other Russian novels I have read, has many characters, these six are central and it is through their lives that Tolstoy explores his themes of hypocrisy, jealousy, fidelity, family/marriage, social and political change (the changing role of the peasant, education reform, changes in women's roles and marriage law), and the contrast between rural and urban lifestyles. Despite the many characters, themes, and topics, I still found Anna's story the most affecting part of the novel. In the section of the novel when she has been rejected by society, she is cut off from her son, and her relationship with Vronsky is troubled, Tolstoy uses an almost stream-of-consciousness style to convey Anna's breakdown, leading to her suicide. While the discussions of political and social issues are interesting, Anna's tragic end--brought on by a combination of her own bad decisions and a rigid society--is what lingers after the last page is turned. I don't find this the "best novel ever written" as William Faulkner did (and he was way more qualified to make such a judgment), but I'm glad I finally read it. On to War and Peace?

Fiction
Recipes for a Perfect Marriage, by Kate Kerrigan

I thought this book sounded good because it was described as being the story of a bride using her grandmother's recipes to work on her marriage--and I'm a sucker for a novel with recipes. However, the bride is an obnoxious character and her grandmother, whom she idolized as having a perfect marriage, is her own kind of pain in the butt. If that sentence isn't enough to convey that I didn't enjoy this book, then I'll just say it: not recommended!

Other
Letter to My Daughter, by Maya Angelou

Here, too, I had a misconception about this book--I thought it would actually be a letter, written to all the young women who looked up to Angelou. Instead, it is a collection of largely autobiographical essays and poems, many previously published. Overall, the collection fell flat for me, though I did enjoy the pieces on Fannie Lou Hamer and on poetry.

Pick of the Litter:  Anna Karenina

Favorite Passages: 

Rummaging in our souls, we often dig up something that ought to have lain there unnoticed.

All the variety, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow.

From Anna Karenina

Thomas Wolfe warned in the title of America's great novel that You Can't Go Home Again. I enjoyed the book but I never agreed with the title. I believe that one can never leave home. I believe that one carries the shadows, the dreams, the fears and dragons of home under one's skin, at the extreme corners of one's eyes and possibly in the gristle of the earlobe.

From Letter to My Daughter



Saturday, January 16, 2016

Thirteen Ways of Looking . . . and Other Early January Reading

So I've decided to change my approach again--posting semi-monthly instead of monthly (I forget too much in a month's time . . . sad).

The year got off to a good start with Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann, a volume that includes a novella and three short stories. The title novella is the story of an elderly widower, formerly a judge, who goes out to lunch and is killed. Alternating chapters present (1) his internal monologue about the indignities of aging, the frustration of dealing with his son (whom he loves and dislikes in equal measure), and other matters and (2) the investigation into his death--but in a manner unlike any other crime story. Investigating a crime is compared to writing poetry, and these chapters include many lovely set pieces, including an wonderful riff on snow.

The three stories that make up the rest of the book are varied. "What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?" is written from the perspective of a writer who has an assignment to write about New Year's Eve and wants to do something that breaks the mold. He thinks he'll write a story set in Afghanistan, with a woman alone in a post, waiting to call her partner and her partner’s son at midnight. "Sh’khol" (a Hebrew word for a parent who has lost a child--no comparable word exists in English) is the haunting story of a woman who adopts a deaf-mute six-year-old from Russia. She buys him a wetsuit for Christmas. The next morning, he puts on the wetsuit and disappears for 48 hours. When he returns, she realizes she’ll never know what happened in those two days. What will happen when he grows older and stronger is a frightening prospect for her and the reader. The final story is "Treaty," in which a nun sees the man who raped and tortured her on the news 37 years later and travels across the Atlantic to confront him

The book also has an interesting back story--it was written before and after McCann was assaulted on the street in New Haven while trying to assist a woman. I thought for sure the novella was written after that event--but it turns out I was wrong. So the effects of the incident aren't necessarily obvious, but they are there.

Definitely recommended.


And more from the first half of the month . . .

Mysteries
Playing with Fire, by Tess Gerritsen

Gerritsen is the author of the Rizzoli and Isles mystery series, but here she branches out with a stand-alone thriller (not her first) that combines the contemporary story of a violinist whose toddler has suddenly become violent with a parallel story of a young violinist in World War II Venice whose family is sent to a concentration camp. Gerritsen is trying for something meaningful, but it falls flat.

Memoirs
Fiction Ruined My Family, by Jeanne Darst.

Fiction didn't ruin Darst's family . . . alcohol and bad decisions did. Just another tale of a sad childhood leading to young adult dysfunction. I've read enough of those.

Classics
Adam Bede, by George Eliot

George Eliot's first novel is the story of two highly moral characters, carpenter Adam and the Methodist evangelist Dinah; two morally compromised characters, Adam's beloved Hetty and the local squire Arthur; and a host of villagers, including several very annoying mothers/aunts who plague the younger people in their families. Adam Bede is a morality play in which the righteous, after pain and suffering, find a happy ending while the sinners pay the piper. Questions of class, religion, and women's roles play a part in the story as well. As a newcomer to Eliot, I found Adam Bede less complex and rewarding than Middlemarch but interesting nonetheless.

Fiction
Small Blessings, by Martha Woodroof
The Bookseller, Cynthia Swanson

Small Blessings reminded me in its general outline of The Storied Life of AJ Fikry--a bookish man is brought out of his shell by gaining sudden responsibility for a child, whose presence also brings an engaging woman into the man's life. But Woodroof's plot is less believable than Zevin's and, even though our book group didn't think The Storied Life was particularly deep, the comparison shows Zevin's greater care and concern for the realities of parenting and the relationships people have with literature. So if you're choosing, read The Storied Life of AJ Fikry instead of Small Blessings.

Set in 1962-1963 Denver, The Bookseller is the story of a 38-year-old woman who suddenly begins to dream an alternative life in which, instead of being a single bookstore owner, she is the married stay-at-home mother of triplets, one of whom is autistic. At first she enjoys the dreams, but gradually she faces serious challenges in both her dream and real lives. There's a twist at the end that actually did surprise me, which is fairly unusual, so hats off to the author for that. I especially enjoyed the description of our city in a period of transition (every period in Denver seems to be a period of transition).

Our library had a Local Author Fair today, and Cynthia Swanson was the keynote speaker. She mentioned that the book has been compared to the film Sliding Doors (to which I recently compared the not-so-successful All the Difference). Swanson does the alternative futures scenario in a way that makes the book more psychologically complex--because it's a dream, we assume, the married-with-children-scenario is wish fulfillment for the author; thus, when it starts to be a source of stress rather than enjoyment, we look to her emotions--rather than an external source--for an explanation. I think this is a good complication.

I asked Swanson about the title of the book, which I did not find to be evocative of the story (I didn't say that). She shared that she had been through several titles (one was Life at This Moment, which I prefer), but her editor at Harper Collins felt that the title needed to convey that the book was about someone who owned a bookstore. Ergo . . .

The Bookseller is cleverly plotted and an enjoyable read.

Other
Erratic Facts, by Kay Ryan
The Book Club Cookbook, by Judy Colman and Vicki Levy Krupp

I had previously only read a couple of poems by Kay Ryan and had enjoyed them. This collection of terse pieces left me cold, however. Since Ryan is a highly regarded poet, I'm sure others might enjoy Erratic Facts, but it definitely wasn't for me.

The Book Club Cookbook is a book you can imagine two friends taking on as a fun project. The book includes brief synopses of more than 100 books; each is accompanied by one or more recipes for food either eaten by characters in the book or representative of the type of food they would have eaten. Occasionally, these recipes were even provided by the authors of the books being discussed. For each book, there is also a description of one or more book groups that have discussed that particular title along with their way of wedding book talk and food. I was surprised at how many book groups seem to make food related to the books a part of their experience and found the descriptions of how the book groups operate interesting. If I were starting a new book group, I would consider a lot of ideas from this book (though probably not the heavy emphasis on food). The recipes did not tempt me to try them out (and I'm a person who regularly tries out recipes), so the book failed as a cookbook but succeeded as an examination of book groups. My favorite part of the entire book was a brief story about food and writing sent to Colman and Krupp by Julia Glass, an author I really enjoy. The fact that her story ends with the following sentence just topped it off beautifully: "We ate every bit of it [a wonderful meal based on one served in her book Three Junes], we talked and laughed and drank wine, and then I read from my book. I stood up before a crowd of happily sated readers under the comforting beams of that fine old creaky house and I thought, You need not always be careful what you wish for." I'm probably going to hang on to this book just for this story.

Pick of the Litter:  Thirteen Ways of Looking 

Favorite passages:

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.


He looked as if he had dressed himself in the third person.

[Both from Thirteen Ways of Looking, from which I might have chosen many other passages.]