Monday, August 22, 2016

Stop Me Before I Read Again!

The month isn't even over, and I've already read 19 books (although three were YA books and a bunch were quickly perused mysteries). Still, is it any wonder I'm behind on work?

Mysteries
Fifteenth Affair, by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro
The Ex, by Alafair Burke
Never Tell, by Alafair Burke
Missing, Presumed, by Susie Steiner
I Let You Go, by Clare MacIntosh
The Perfect Ghost, by Linda Barnes
Blue Monday, by Nicci French

I'm getting to the point where I have nothing to say about 95 percent of the mysteries I read. Missing, Presumed was a cut above the others, providing an interesting character study of the mother of a missing woman and two police officers; the mystery, itself, however, is somewhat lame. These were okay as fluff (i.e., work avoidance), but nothing really exciting/challenging. And please note, mystery writers: A twist on its own does not save a book!

YA
Among the Brave, Among the Enemy, and Among the Free, by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Yes, I finally finished the Shadow Children series. The original concept (the government has made it illegal to have more than two children) was interesting, but the whole thing devolved pretty badly by the end. I can't actually believe my granddaughter (age 8 when she read it) understood all the plot machinations because I couldn't track what the heck was going on. So many better options out there (The Giver and its two sequels to name just one).

Fiction
Truly Madly Guilty, by Liane Moriarty
The Diving Pool, by Yoko Ogawa
Attachments, by Rainbow Rowell
The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson
Dreamers of the Day, by Mary Doria Russell

Truly Madly Guilty is the story of three suburban couples who are, kind of, friends. Something bad happened the last time all three couples got together (and we know it's something about a child), and the event has changed the relationships within and between the couples. As with Moriarty's other books, there's lots of snarky humor, but it's harder to enjoy when there's death or injury of a child lurking in the background. If this had been my first Moriarty, I might have enjoyed it more, but as my fourth or fifth, it didn't feel very fresh.

If you have read Yoko Ogawa's charming The Housekeeper and the Professor, the three novellas in The Diving Pool will shock you as they are creepy and full of what I think of as Japanese literary alienation. The title story is about a teenage girl, Aya, whose parents run an orphanage, where she lives with the other children. She is somewhat obsessed with Jun, a boy about her age who is a champion diver; she also finds herself treating a toddler named Rie with exceptional cruelty. The second novella, Pregnancy Diary (a favorite of my son, the expert in Japanese literature), is a journal by the sister of a pregnant woman. Much of the diary focuses on the pregnant sister's diet, particularly her voracious eating of grapefruit jam made by the journal-keeper, who has read something that suggests the jam may be toxic. Dormitory is about a Tokyo woman whose husband has gotten a job in Sweden. She is contacted by a young cousin who is looking for a place to stay while attending school in Tokyo; she sets him up at the rooming house where she lived as a student--but it has gone downhill precipitously since and the reader immediately feels concern for her cousin. Ogawa has crafted a disturbing set of stories--but they do make you think and keep you reading.

Attachments sounded like a cute idea--a man whose job is to monitor employees' emails falls in love with a woman whose email exchanges with a friend often violate company policy. I guess maybe I should have known when I thought "cute" that the book would be pretty shallow, but for some reason I had hopes for the book, unjustified hopes as it turns out.

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared mixes the adventures of the elderly protagonist, Allan Karlsson, following his escape from a senior citizens home in small-town Sweden, with his back story, which saw him involved in numerous key events of the 20th century, from the Spanish Civil War to the Manhattan Project; he was responsible for giving the Soviets the secret to nuclear weapons, spent years in a gulag, saved Winston Churchill from assassination, and much much more. The book made me think of a mash-up between Forrest Gump (his early life) and a Marx Brothers movie (his post-escape adventures with a motley crew of characters including an elephant, a gangster, and the owner of a hot dog stand). I found the book tedious before too many adventures had been completed.

My son recently mentioned that he had read and enjoyed Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, which I had read and enjoyed some years ago. So I decided to try another of her books--but one of her historical novels rather than science fiction. Dreamers of the Day is about an Ohio woman, Agnes Shanklin, whose entire family dies in the swine flu epidemic following World War I; she decides to take the money she inherits and, free from the constraints placed on her by an overbearing (but now dead) mother, travel to the Middle East, where her sister and brother-in-law had served as missionaries. Upon her arrival, she meets a German intelligence officer, as well as Winston Churchill, Lawrence of Arabia, and others attending the Cairo Peace Conference that will divide up the Middle East. The plot seems completely unbelievable, the main character is annoying, and the fantastical element introduced at the end of the book just seems stupid. Not recommended.

Classics
The Europeans, by Henry James

Perhaps this short novel does not really qualify as a classic, since it seems to be one of Henry James' lesser works. It's a comedic story of a brother and sister who travel from Europe to visit their American cousins, who live in New England. At least one of the siblings is hoping to find a wealthy spouse. At the heart of the story are the difference between the Europeans, who are haughty and yet shallow (particularly the sister), and the Americans, who are more stolid and tradition-bound. The language of the book is notable, but the story is definitely thin.

Nonfiction
32 Yolks, by Eric Ripert
My Life on the Road, by Gloria Steinem
An Anthropologist on Mars, by Oliver Sacks

32 Yolks is the story of how Eric Ripert became a chef, starting from a difficult childhood and ending with his move to the United States. The most interesting thing about the book is how horribly chefs in Paris treated their employees--at least at the time when Ripert was training. The renowned chef Joel Robuchon (I have eaten at his restaurant in Tokyo) was a complete tyrant whose cooks lived in fear and suffered a variety of physical and mental ailments as a result. Truly horrifying.

In My Life on the Road, Gloria Steinem reflects on why she feels more at home on the road than in one place and what she has learned from her travels speaking, organizing, and working for change. It's definitely interesting to see her perspective on such things as conversation circles versus online community-building (she doesn't see the latter as powerful) and the interplay between racism and sexism, which it sometimes seems like she gets right, sometimes wrong. She definitely provides plenty to chew on, even when you don't agree with her--and she zings a few well-known folks (Betty Friedan in particular) to feed our base love of gossip. I listened to the book and was surprised that I didn't care for Debra Winger's narration, most notably because she several times made Steinem sound like she was condescending to the reader. I'd stick with print--but I'd definitely read it. In fact, I might read it again myself.

More than 20 years ago, I read Oliver Sacks' The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and talked about it so incessantly I must have annoyed everyone within earshot. I actually bought An Anthropologist on Mars shortly after it came out in 1995 but never got around to reading it. When Sacks wrote so movingly about his illness and impending death last year, I was reminded me of how much I respected his work and his humanity. So I picked up An Anthropologist on Mars and started reading--but it took me a long time to get through it. Somehow it didn't resonate as The Man . . . did years ago. I don't know if the particular case studies were less interesting--here he writes primarily about vision and autism (and I did enjoy the Temple Grandin case study, perhaps because I already knew her story and had read one of her books)--or I have changed. I still respect Sacks' intellectual curiosity and caring, but I found the heavily footnoted text a bit of a slog.


Pick of the litter:  My Life on the Road

Favorite passages:

…cruelty is one of fear’s most common by-products.

From 32 Yolks, by Eric Ripert

Soon there would be flowers, either at the site where a body was found or outside the house, from members of the public who wrote cards saying “You’re safe now” or “Rest in peace” or “Looking down from heaven.” They scare her, these tragedy tourists, as if they are hungry for catastrophe, a line from the inside of them to the inside of suffering, like a hook inside the cheek of a fish. Manon knows death, and she knows it is no rest or journey. “Do not go gently into that good night.”


From Missing, Presumed, by Susie Steiner

. . . the most reliable predictor of whether a country is violent within itself--or will use military violence against another country--is not poverty, natural resources, religion, or even degree of democracy; it's violence against females. It normalizes all other violence.

I began to see that, for some, religion was just a form of politics you couldn't criticize.

From My Life on the Road, by Gloria Steinm

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Hot Weather and Mostly Lukewarm Reading

The ridiculous heat may have affected my brain--or at least I'm going to use that as my excuse for a mini mystery binge this month. But I did manage one (short) classic and a couple of prize-winners. 

Mysteries
Extreme Prey, by John Sandford
The Good Neighbor, A. J. Banner
She's Not There, by Joy Fielding
212, by Alafair Burke
The Theory of Death, by Faye Kellerman
Wilde Lake, by Laura Lippman

The Sandford, Burke, and Kellerman books are installments in long-running series--none terrible, none really good. The Good Neighbor is something I got free on Amazon when I was a Prime member--and I got what I paid for. 

She's Not There is the story of a child kidnapping similar to the Madeleine McCann--a toddler daughter is snatched from a hotel room when her parents are having dinner in the restaurant downstairs. More than a decade later, the parents marriage has collapsed, they are still hounded by the press (especially on anniversaries), neither gets alone well with their other (older) daughter, and both are haunted by guilt--although the father, perhaps stereotypically, has found it easier to move on. When a girl calls to say she thinks she is their daughter, it causes even more strife, but eventually leads to a disturbing resolution of the crime. Okay but wouldn't recommend (and I'm getting tired of a mini-trend involving mothers being blamed when their children go missing).

Laura Lippman has written some very good mysteries--both in her Tess Monaghan series and in her stand-alone books. Wilde Lake is a stand-alone that focuses on Lu Brant, newly elected state's attorney in Howard County, Maryland. Her first case in office is a murder case that eventually leads Lu back to a series of terrible events during her older brother's senior year of high school (when her father was the state's attorney). Subplots involve new developments in the case that made her father beloved in the community and revelations about her mother's death. The themes of the book are important: the expectations we have of our heroes and the stories we create to cover the pain of our histories. But somehow the book doesn't quite work--too many coincidences, a dual narration (Lu as a child and Lu today) that isn't consistent, and an obnoxious protagonist. Not one of Lippmann's best.


Young Adult
The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate

The granddaughter gave me this Newbery-award-winning book for my birthday because she enjoyed it--and I can see why. The story is narrated by a gorilla named Ivan, who has lived for 27 years in a small glass enclosure in a mall. When his friend and fellow captive Stella the elephant becomes ill and is clearly dying, their owner brings in a baby Ruby to replace her. Before she dies, Stella asks Ivan to get Ruby to a zoo. He uses his artistic talent and his friendship with the daughter of the custodian at the mall to bring public attention to the animals' plight. It's a sweet story and is written in single-sentence paragraphs that somehow made me believe that might be how a gorilla used language. Kids who like animals will love this book.


Fiction
They Don't Mean to But They Do, by Cathleen Schine
This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! by Jonathan Evison
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, by Heidi Durrow
Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson
A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole
Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, by Ramonda Ausubel

They May Not Mean to But They Do is a funny but sad story about aging parents and their adult children's attempts to control them. As the novel opens, 86-year-old Joy is still working while caring for her husband, who suffers from dementia. Then her husband dies, she loses her job, a boyfriend from her past turns up, and her children, Molly and Daniel, start trying to control her (while being unable to control elements of their own lives). All of the characters are well-intentioned, and all of them make lots of mistakes. A depiction of Joy's apartment as seriously cluttered with mail and other papers Joy cannot deal with reminded me so vividly of my own nearly 92-year-old mother's dining table and desk (if you're reading this, Mom, sorry) that I came close to simultaneously laughing and crying. Definitely worth reading.

This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! has a similar theme. Harriet is an older woman whose husband recently died, after suffering with Alzheimer's. She learns he bought two tickets for an Alaskan cruise before he died, and she decides to go on the trip. Things don't go well and her estranged daughter decides to join her to rein her in. It turns out the daughter and her brother are trying to manipulate the mother for their own benefit; at the same time, Harriet is learning some disturbing things about her late husband. Chapters telling the story in the present are interspersed with "This Is Your Life" type narration describing, in second person (as on the old game show), various periods in Harriet's early life. I think the author intends the book to be funny, but mostly it just made me feel sad for Harriet. Schine's book is much better! 

Author Heidi Durrow is the daughter of a Danish woman and an African American man--as is the heroine of her novel, young Rachel. Rachel has recently begun living with her paternal grandmother and aunt in a black neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. She feels like she doesn't belong and her classmates are happy to reinforce that feeling. As she tries to cope with her new circumstances, she is also grieving for her mother, brother, and sister and recovering from injuries she sustained in the event that killed them: a fall from the roof of the apartment building where they were living in Chicago. She also wonders why she has not heard from her serviceman father, still stationed somewhere overseas. As Rachel comes of age, her back story is filled in through sections narrated by her mother, her mother's supervisor at her job in Chicago, and the neighbor boy who saw her brother fall past his window. Rachel will break your heart and make you think; as the mother of biracial children, I may be somewhat more interested in Rachel's story than the average reader, but everyone should certainly care because multiracial children are, in my opinion, the future. Recommended. 

A couple of years ago, I undertook a project to read Pulitzer and National Book Award winners. I'm doing it slowly--in part because there are a lot of them and in part because some of them just don't appeal. Tree of Smoke, the story of CIA operatives and collaborators during the Vietnam War, was one of those. And, in this case (unlike The Road, which I resisted but ended up admiring), my trepidation was well-founded. I don't think it's an overstatement to say I hated this book. Similarly, I disliked A Confederacy of Dunces, frequently referred to as a modern-day Don Quixote. Although I haven't read Don Quixote (I probably should), this is only true if Don Quixote was a narcissistic, idiotic, and abusive fool, as is Ignatius Reilly, the protagonist of Dunces. Definitely not worth the time.

In Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, we meet Edgar and Fern. They both grew up in wealthy families with parents who weren't warm--Fern's family was old money, Edgar's nouveau riche. As college students, they decided they didn't care about money--yet by the time they have been married for over a decade and have three children, they seem to be enjoying the life of leisure Fern's parents' money has given them. Then they learn the money is gone. Fern assumes Edgar will go to work in his father's steel company--but Edgar, who fancies himself a novelist, does not want to. Both essentially melt down and run away (without telling each other), leaving their three children at home with no supervision. Although I thoroughly disliked Fern and Edgar, I enjoyed the depiction of their hypocrisy and their meltdown--until Ausubel gave them a dose of sudden-onset maturity. Despite the letdown of the happy ending (I know--it's a weird reaction), I'd recommend the book. 

Classics
The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka

This classic novella is the story of hard-working traveling salesman Gregor Samsa, who has the financial responsibility for his parents and his younger sister--but wakes up one morning as a horrible vermin. No one seems to wonder how or why this happened, they just try to construct a new way of living with a family member who is no longer human and without their income source. Gregor's sister assumes the task of taking care of him, but gradually she, too, tires of the task and begins to talk of killing Gregor. The parents wish they could move to another apartment, but they feel tied to their current quarters by Gregor's presence. While Gregor deals with his transformation dispassionately, he does begin to feel responsible for the problems his family faces. 

I read the novella as representing the dehumanizing and alienating effect of both family and work. It also poses ethical questions about how we treat others, even when their outer presentation becomes repulsive. Definitely strange, definitely worth a read. 

Nonfiction
Not for Bread Alone, edited by Daniel Halpern 

This book is a collection of highly variable pieces about food, from authors as wide-ranging as Alice Waters, Wendell Berry, M.F.K. Fisher, Michael Dorris, Colette, and many more. The topics are equally wide-ranging. My favorite was a Paul Schmidt essay about the meaning of oysters in Anna Karenina. Overall, however, there were more essays I found boring than ones I liked.

Pick of the Litter:  The Girl Who Fell from the Sky and Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty 

Favorite Passages:
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.
     From The Girl Who Fell from the Sky

There are some things that can't be righted. . . . It's good to name them.
     From Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty


Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Art of Memoir, by Mary Karr . . . or Do I Really Hate Memoirs?


If you have read much of this blog, you know I quite often say I don't like memoirs. Indeed, I have tried to read two of Mary Karr's memoirs and been unable to get into them. So why am I devoting an entire entry--something I rarely do anymore--to her book of advice about writing memoirs? Because it caused me to think about memoirs and why I do or don't like them.

In the book, Karr intersperses chapters about writing (finding your voice, choosing details, structuring the narrative) with chapters in which she analyzes memoirs that she admires. Since I have no intention of writing a memoir, I'm not sure how useful the information is for potential memoirists, but some of it is quite useful to readers. For example, she breaks down the first two paragraphs of Michael Herr's Dispatches in a way that encourages me to be a more careful reader. Similarly, her discussion of voice motivates me to look more closely at voice as I read.

One aspect of Karr's perspective that annoyed me was that she takes a lot of shots at fiction (whether out of defensiveness or genuine belief that memoir is superior, I don't know). She says that memoir is harder to create and more truthful than fiction. She seems to see fiction as blurred memoir, saying at one point that "even" a fictional character can feel like the reader's pal. I would disagree with all of these claims, but perhaps the claim that most helps explain my oft-stated aversion for the genre is the motivation she attributes to memoirists: to "recover some lost aspect of the past so it can be integrated into current identity." Integrating the past into current identity is a worthy pursuit--particularly for therapy. But if it results in a book, that book does not necessarily deserve to be published.

Indeed, I think that memoirs written in order to find the truth of one's past are the memoirs I don't generally like, especially if they are about sad childhoods and alcoholism/drug addiction. Perhaps the first 100 such books served a purpose--helping people with similar problems/life experiences work through their own search for an integrated identity--but enough already. I find these books tiresome. I suspect Mary Karr might think I am in denial--but I had a pretty decent childhood and have dealt with any lingering issues from childhood privately. Similarly, addiction is not part of my story. I just don't find such accounts rewarding in any way. And I mostly don't read them anymore--except when an author tricks me by, for example, calling her book Fiction Ruined My Family. Now if that were really the truth of her story, I could for sure get into it, but it was just another tale of alcohol and bad decisions.

Here I must admit that a very few memoirs have had emotional resonance for me--the writer experienced something difficult that had some similarity to an event in my life and wrote about it in a way that helped me process my own feelings (quite importantly, these authors did not whine--compare Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking with Joyce Carol Oates's annoying A Widow's Story).  As I think about memoirs I have liked and disliked, I find that I  like memoirs in which the writer has done something interesting with his/her life that I enjoy learning about; of late, these have often been works by chefs (Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson and Grant Achatz's Life, on the Line come to mind). I also admire (though don't always totally understand) memoirs in which the writer draws parallels between his/her life and events in the larger world, essentially making the writer's life a metaphor for more global issues. Examples here would include When Women Were Birds and Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams and Nobody's Son by Luis Alberto Urrea.

So I have resolved to stop making the blanket statement that I don't like memoirs and avoid those memoirs I know I will not find meaningful, hoping that there are other folks who will find these books resonate with them. I guess I should thank Mary Karr for that.

Favorite passage:
Truth works a trip wire that permits the book to explode into being.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

What Is Novel Conversations Reading?

So I haven't been to Novel Conversations since January, but I'm still tracking what they're reading. Here's their slate for the rest of the year:

July--My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry, by Frederick Backman
August--What Alice Forgot, by Liane Moriarty
September--Clara and Mr. Tiffany, by Susan Vreeland
October--One Book One Broomfield choice
November--The Kitchen-House, by Kathleen Grissom
December--no book
January 17--A Fall of Marigolds, by Susan Meissne

Midsummer Reading

It's not really midsummer yet, but for me the Fourth of July always feels like the point when the remaining days and weeks of summer are going to race by rapidly. Still, I am hoping those days and weeks bring some good books. In June, most of my reading was uninspiring, but Cormac McCarthy's The Road rose above the mundane. 

Mysteries

Angel's Tip, by Alafair Burke
Corrupted, by Lisa Scottoline

I have read some of Alafair Burke's books over the years but recently decided to give her Ellie Hatcher series a second try (I had apparently read the first title in the series years ago, though I remember very little about it). Ellie is a New York City homicide detective who has risen very quickly through the ranks, causing suspicion among her colleagues. But her partner, J.J. Rogan, a dapper African American detective, backs her up, even when she goes off in some odd directions while trying to solve the case of a murdered college girl on spring break in Manhattan. Okay but not a great mystery by any means.

I did not care for Corrupted, the latest entry in Scottoline's series about an all-female law firm in Philadelphia, a series I think I may have to abandon. While Scottoline brings in a current issue--corruption in sentencing juveniles to for-profit prisons--The Good Wife did the same topic better. The part of the story that focuses on a romance senior partner Benni had with the uncle of a young miscreant is utterly ridiculous. So not recommended.

Young Adult

Among the Barons, by Margaret Peterson Haddix
Belzhar, by Meg Wolitzer

Among the Barons is number 4 in the Shadow Children series recommended by my granddaughter. This one involves the hero of the series--Luke--being forced to become involved with the family of the young man whose identity he's assumed as a way of avoiding detection as an unlawful third child. The family has money (ergo "The Barons"), and Luke cannot figure out why they want him around. As usual, he doesn't know who to trust, evil deeds transpire, and you are as confused at the end of the book as when you started. My granddaughter claims that, by the seventh book, I will understand everything. I am forced to trust her.

I didn't realize Belzhar was a YA title when I downloaded it on OverDrive (I'm only familiar with Meg Wolitzer's adult novels). It's the story of five teenagers who've been sent to The Wooden Barn, a boarding school for "fragile" young people; they meet in a class, "Special Topics in English," that is focusing on the words of Sylvia Plath. Their teacher gives them antique journals in which to write during the semester and, when they write in them, they are transported back in time to before the trauma that sent them to The Wooden Barn. They call this "place," Belzhar (say it out loud and you'll understand how they got this name). As the end of the semester approaches, they must find a way to live in the present. I found the premise silly, but it's possible that kids in their early teens (there are numerous references to sex, so I wouldn't recommend it for younger kids) might find it engaging.

Classics

Catch-22, by Joseph Heller

I tried to read Catch-22 when I was in college, but I just couldn't get into it. Recently, my son and I exchanged some "favorite" book lists and this was on his list, so I decided to give it another try, this time in audio book format. I did succeed in finishing it, but I didn't really enjoy it. Yes, it's an on-point satire of war and the military bureaucracy. Yes, it is at times quite funny. But it goes on way too long, providing more evidence for my argument that satirical novels should be limited to around 300 pages (Catch-22 is over 500). And, as with other male writers of his era, Heller writes about women in a way that is degrading; of course, one can argue that he is only reflecting the attitudes of the male characters in the book but surely there could be a female character who wasn't simply a toy/foil for the men.  If an intrepid reader wants to give the book a try, I might recommend not going with the audio book--so much of the dialogue is shouted that listening to the book wore me down (and, on a side note, the reader makes Yossarian sound like Alan Arkin, who played the role in the movie, which I found somewhat odd).

Fiction

The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin
LaRose, by Louise Erdrich
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
Patricia Highsmith: Selected Novels and Short Stories, by Patricia Highsmith
Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishigura
Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler
Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave

The Dispossessed was another of my son's recommendations, and I found it interesting if not exciting. The protagonist is a physicist named Shevek, who is seeking to develop a General Temporal Theory. He lives on Antarres, a planet inhabited by people who broke off from their twin planet Urras, led by the anarchist Odo. While Antarres purportedly has no government, but the waning of its revolutionary spirit has created a culture of conformity, and Shevek's research, which flies in the face of accepted thinking, is not well accepted. He therefore decides to travel to Urras--an unheard of decision--to continue his research and open scientific communication between the two societies. But he struggles on Urras as well. Alternate chapters detail Shevek's life on Antarres and his life on Urras, playing with time and the relationship of events in the two phases of his life. The novel is not at all plot-driven; rather, it is a novel of ideas--ideas about time, science, the structuring of society, human relationships, the environment, the effect of scarcity on society, and more. I'm sure I missed a lot of what LeGuin is saying, but I enjoyed the opportunity to think about these ideas.

I used to read a lot of Louise Erdrich, though I was always kind of scratching my head and wondering what exactly she was trying to say in her complicated tales about Native American life and mythology. So I stopped reading her for awhile; then I read her three most recent books (Shadow Tag, The Round House, and Plague of Doves) and found them much more firmly rooted in the present and ergo easier for me to grasp; I admired all three. I was therefore disappointed when LaRose fell flat for me. It's the story of two families the Ironses and the Ravitches (the wives are half-sisters). When Landreaux Irons accidentally kills five-year-old Dusty Ravitch, he and his wife decide they must give their five-year-old son LaRose to the Ravitches as reparation. Both sets of parents (and Dusty's sister) suffer as a result of these events, and their suffering is made worse by the actions of another man, whose son is being raised by the Irons family. Family history woven into the story reveals how boarding schools that separated Native American children from their families scarred the children, both mentally and physically. As I write this description, I am thinking "I should have been really engaged with these characters" . . . and yet I wasn't.

The Road is a grim depiction of a post-apocalyptic world in which a man and his young son are trekking across the American West, surviving on their wits and good luck. The man loves his son (their wife/mother committed suicide) and tells him they are "the good guys," but the son begins to question that description as his father uses violence against other survivors they encounter. As I was listening to the book, I told my son I was afraid the ending was going to be too devastating for me to handle, but instead it was almost too upbeat. Still, I really liked The Road both for McCarthy's gift for description and the depiction of two sad but somehow inspiring characters in the midst of ruin.

Included in the Patricia Highsmith collection are two novels--Strangers on a Train and The Price of Salt. I knew the general outline of Strangers on a Train but had never read it or seen the Hitchcock film based on it. Several things about the book surprised me--that the "strangers" had not really agreed to the plot, that the man who committed the first murder was so clearly deranged, that the story had homoerotic undertones--dark and suspenseful (though also dated). The Price of Salt is in some ways more interesting, as it is essentially a lesbian love story that Highsmith published under a pseudonym. I can see that this book would have been groundbreaking in the early 1950s, but, sadly, I found it as annoying as I would find a love story in which a much younger woman is emotionally abused by a man she loves (other readers don't seem to have found Carol as manipulative and abusive to Therese as I did but I thought she was despicable). I guess I will now watch the recent movie Carol that was based on the book--perhaps it will make me change my mind. The short stories included are varied--I enjoyed some, found others really strange, but then I'm not a short story person.

I saw the film Remains of the Day years ago and remember it as being a very sad depiction of a man whose emotional life was stunted by the role he had to play as a butler. Because my son described the book as "goofy," I decided to read it and, while I'm not sure that's the word I would have used, it definitely has a more comic/ironic tone. Stevens, the protagonist, has been the butler at Darlington Hall for decades, first serving Lord Darlington, now serving an American who has bought the estate and operates it with a much reduced staff. After receiving a letter from the former housekeeper, Stevens takes some time off to drive cross country to her home, hoping she has decided to leave her husband and might return to work at Darlington Hall. As he drives, he reflects on the meaning of the word dignity, an essential trait of a great butler in his view; on his relationship with his late father, also a butler, and Miss Kenton, the housekeeper; and on his experiences serving Lord Darlington. In his encounters with people on his trip, he several times denies having worked for Lord Darlington, whose reputation was sullied by his pro-German stance leading up to World War II; each time he feels guilty about doing so but cannot admit to strangers that he spent his life serving a man unworthy of the sacrifices he made. So, as this description should make clear, the book is about what I remember the theme of the movie being--but the tone is different (unless I am remembering the film incorrectly). I did enjoy the book and plan to rewatch the film to check my memory!

In 2015, Hogarth Press launched a project to have Shakespeare plays retold by modern authors (I'm not quite sure why someone would think that is a good idea). Vinegar Girl is purportedly a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew (which, sadly, I have neither read nor seen performed--and I took a semester of Shakespeare in college!), set, of course, in Baltimore. Our modern Kate is a college dropout, working as an assistant preschool teacher (she often acts about as mature as her students and is perpetually on probation) and taking care of her eccentric scientist father and obnoxious teenage sister, both of whom show little respect for Kate. Then her father has the idea to arrange a marriage between Kate and his colleague at the lab, whose visa is about to run out. The kinds of adventures you'd expect in an Anne Tyler novel ensue. Tyler does try to twist the sexism in The Taming of the Shrew on its head, but it didn't quite work for me. I feel about this book as I did about Curtis Sittenfield's retelling of Pride and Prejudice--amusing but essentially just light entertainment.

I loved Chris Cleave's Little Bee and liked Incendiary a lot; Gold, a story told in the arena of sports, fell flat.  Everyone Brave Is Forgiven moves back to looking at how people deal with violent conflict, in this case World War II. At the heart of the story is Mary, an 18-year-old girl from the privileged classes, who signs up at the War Office as soon as war is declared. She is assigned to be a teacher--but, when her students are evacuated, the head teacher tells her she is not needed or wanted in the country. With the help of the school district head, Tom, who becomes her lover, she gets her own class of students whom no one in the countryside will take in--disabled and black students. Through Tom, she and her friend Hilda meet Alistair, who is serving on the front. All four characters experience great trauma and loss (one of them is killed, while the other three are seriously injured and face numerous challenges--some of which they handle in ways that don't seem realistic), but the book ends on an upbeat note. While I was intrigued by the story of black entertainers and children in London during the War, the four main characters did not hold my attention. Perhaps there have just been too many World War II books lately. Or perhaps historical novels aren't Cleave's forte. Whatever the reason, I can't recommend Everyone Brave Is Forgiven.

Nonfiction

When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi

By any standard, Paul Kalanithi was a high achiever, his degrees in literature, medicine, and neuroscience so numerous and impressive as to be downright intimidating. In his mid-30s, he was chief neurosurgery resident at Stanford Hospital, about to embark on what would assuredly have been a remarkable career. Then he was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer and decided to write a memoir; about half of the slim book is a recounting of his life before the diagnosis, half of his life as a doctor with cancer. An afterword by his wife tells of the rapid decline after two years of treatment and of his death. Kalanithi was a talented writer and his story is moving; while many reader reviewers have said they found inspiration in the book, I'm not sure I have taken anything from it other than profound sadness. Still, I would recommend the book.

Pick of the Litter: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

Favorite passages:

No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grade and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.

From The Road, by Cormac McCarthy


When he played his father's music, he was almost back home. But a tune had no fixed place in time. It was a city before the eternal. It was only ever a joint.

From Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave


When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man's days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.

From When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalinithi (parting words addressed to his infant daughter)


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