Thursday, December 31, 2009

My "Best of" List

The year began with I See You Everywhere, by Julia Glass (liked it), and ended with A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore (didn't like it). In between were some very good books, some very bad books, and many in the middle. Here are my favorites:

Best Fiction: Little Bee, by Chris Cleave

This shocking story is narrated by Little Bee, a refugee from Nigeria, and Sarah, the British magazine editor who encounters Little Bee in Nigeria and again at home in London's suburbs. Little Bee spends two years in a British detention center. When she escapes (thanks to another detainee's willingness to give sexual favors to a guard, she makes her way to the home of Sarah and her husband, setting off a startling chain of events. The book deals not only with the UK's response to immigration issues and violence in Africa, but also middle class ennui and infidelity. Nothing is truer in the book than Little Bee's admonition, "So when I say I am a refugee, you must understand that there is no refuge."

Little Bee's voice is one I cannot forget. Here are some other examples:

"We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived!

"They carried themselves like weather presenters preparing to lower expectations for the bank-holiday weekend."

"I was very young then, and I did not miss having a future because I did not know I was entitled to one."

Best Nonfiction: Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell

Using research, case studies, and his own story, Malcolm Gladwell helps us understand why some people succeed at a very high level and others don't. Perhaps surprisingly for readers, the answer is seldom greater innate ability--rather, the story of success involves ability plus intense and lengthy practice, accidents of timing, and cultural influences. After reading this book, I bored people by talking about it repeatedly for weeks (perhaps months). While Gladwell may not be right about everything, he gives the reader much to think and talk about.

Best Poetry: Bicycles, by Nikki Giovanni

Lovely accessible poems about love and loss. Giovanni teaches at Virginia Tech, and the perpetrator of the mass murder there had been in one of her classes; she includes two very different poems about the event (a line from one: "But we will be the same....willful ignorance will overpower indignation every time...."). But most of the poems are upbeat. As Giovanni says at the end of the poem "In Simpler Times":

Taking the roasted chicken
With root vegetables out of the oven
It's easy to see
The delight I am taking
In this life

Best Mystery: The Late, Lamented Molly Marx, by Sally Koslow

I read a lot of mysteries and this year, too often, they were bad mysteries. I'm not even sure The Late, Lamented Molly Marx would be shelved in the mystery section, but it has elements of a mystery--the police are trying to determine what happened to Molly Marx (murder? suicide? a simple bike accident?) and so is she. Yes, that's right, the title character is dead but not quite ready for "The Duration" (Koslow's take on the afterlife). Through her eyes and memory, we reconstruct what happened in her life and death (and death seems to have improved her). An entertaining read.


I want to make note of the great writing that appears in popular magazines, which are dying almost as rapidly as newspapers. This year, I read excellent articles by such noted novelists as Joyce Maynard (More), Karen Joy Fowler (Real Simple), Chang-Rae Lee (Food and Wine), and Pam Houston (one of many luminaries writing for O). Esquire's sarcastic hipster tone often made me laugh. And Newsweek's feature on children's perceptions of race made me think--and talk (it was another one of those pieces I couldn't stop telling people about). Those are just some examples. So next time you're at the bookstore, pick up a magazine along with your books.

A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore

Given that A Gate at the Stairs received two strong reviews from The New York Times (and landed on many "best of" lists), I hesitate to say I didn't really care for it...but I didn't really care for it. Moore is a talented writer and I have enjoyed her darkly humorous short stories. Here, however, she struggles to integrate the events in narrator Tassie Keltjin's life into a meaningful whole--or perhaps she didn't care about that integration, but I unfortunately do.

At the book's opening, Tassie, a college student in fictional Troy, Wisconsin (which bears many resemblances to Madison, where Moore teaches), is looking for a job. She hires on as a babysitter for Sarah Brink, who is trying to adopt a child and, after at least one misstep, adopts two-year-old, biracial Mary-Emma. Moore pokes fun at some of the ridiculous notions of modern parenting (Sarah bakes library books to kill the germs before she'll let Emmie read them) and liberals' attempts to talk their way through racism; the conversation that drifts up the stairs to the nursery as members of families that are biracial, multiracial, or "of color" meet in Sarah's living room are both hilarious and painful. Moore can still make me laugh: her litany of 36 fabric colors that begin with P (some complete with exclamation marks--"Paprika, Pinot, Persimmon! Pimento! Pomegrante, Pine!") is wonderful.

But Tassie experiences some very bad things (I won't say what they are out of respect for future readers of the book), and, in my view, Moore is less skillful in weaving these events into the story. They feel as though they were plunked into the narrative to give Tassie an experience of loss that she can then process. But they make little sense in terms of a plot, and Tassie's efforts to move on are unevenly rendered--two of the three bad things that happen to her are reflected on at length, the other (though heart-rending) seems to have had much less impact.

Tassie's narration is uneven. At times, her actions and her thoughts reflect a naive girl from rural Wisconsin. At others, she seems to be a typical college student struggling to find herself. Those two "selves" make sense, but at other times she thinks and acts in a way that suggests a great deal of intellectual (and implausible) sophistication. Some reviewers have complained about the puns in the book; for the most part, they don't bother me. I was, however, bothered by the ending, in which Moore employs an Austenesque "Reader, I..." device that awkwardly draws the book to a close.

Favorite passages:

Tragedies, I was coming to realize through my daily studies in the humanities both in and out of the classrooom, were a luxury. They were constructions of an affluent society full of sorrow and truth but without moral function. Stories of the vanquishing of the spirit expressed and underscored a certain societal spirit to spare.

(This is beautifully written--and a good example of narration that doesn't seem true to the 20-year-old Tassie.)

I strung a thick old rope between the poles [of an abandoned tennis court], and I took my collection of Rumi poems and carefully flattened and unstrung it so I could hang folded pages along the crease, tacking them into the rope with pushpins, and I lay underneath and read.

(Okay, I love the idea of the poems on the rope more than the actual writing here.)

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Locked In, by Marcia Muller

In her 26th book in the Sharon McCone series, Marcia Muller has found a way to make the book fresh--Shar is shot in the head in the first chapter and spends the next 200 pages unable to talk or move (although she is conscious and can communicate by blinking). The book follows Shar's husband Hy as he deals with her health crisis and various operatives at her detective agency as they try to figure out who shot their boss. Through their investigations, they link two apparently unrelated cases into a major corruption scandal in local government (which seems fairly far-fetched, but maybe I'm naive) and figure out who shot Sharon.

Focusing on Mick, Rae, Julia, Craig, and Hy freshens the series by letting long-time readers get to know these characters better. Chapters on Sharon are also interesting, as we track her thinking as she realizes what it means to be "locked-in" in her own mind and body. I didn't find the story particularly suspenseful, but it was an fun, quick read for weekend/holiday diversion.

Favorite passage: None

Thursday, December 24, 2009

You or Someone Like You, by Chandler Burr

You or Someone Like You introduces its two main characters in a scene in which movie executive Howard Rosenbaum is leaving his wife Anne. The book then goes back a year, to a point at which Anne's life changes considerably. Despite having a doctorate in English literature, she has until then been a housewife who tended to her garden, raised her son, and went to events with her prominent husband. A scene at a dinner party illustrates how Howard sucked up all the attention in the room (he even sucked up a teaching job at UCLA that Anne had originally applied for). But at that same dinner party, a producer asks Anne to make her a reading list. The reading list develops into a reading group (Anne is adamant that it is not a book club) and then a series of specialized reading groups for directors, writers, producers, etc. As the popularity of the groups feeds Anne's ego, her confidence grows and she is asked to read scripts, make recommendations about books worthy of becoming films, and even become a producer.

While we read the literary analysis Anne provides to her groups, we also learn the back story of Anne and Howard's apparently happy marriage. Howard was raised as an observant Jew in Brooklyn; Anne grew up all over the world, wherever her British father's diplomatic career took the family. Although Howard's parents disapproved of Anne, they married, moved to Los Angeles, had a son Sam, and apparently left all thoughts of religion behind them. Much of their parenting and their own relationship seems to take place through reading and/or quoting literary works. Through Anne's recollections, we also learn that she sees herself as an elitist but not a snob (the distinction to my mind is misplaced, as she appears to be both).

At any rate, as we read about Anne's emerging career, it seems likely that the shift of power between Anne and Howard will be the cause of the rift portrayed in the opening scene. But no! The cause of the rift--and the subject of the second half of the book, which borders on being a screed--is Howard's sudden decision to return to the practice of Judaism and thus to reject his gentile wife and son. The precipitating event is Sam's experience on a spring-break trip to Israel, where he is expelled from a yeshiva for being "unclean" (because his mother is not Jewish, he is not Jewish under Jewish law). For me as a parent (who is neither Jewish nor religious but does know something about diverse families), Howard's response to this event is completely unbelievable. However, it gives Chandler Burr (who, according to an "Author's Note," had a similar experience as a young man) the opportunity, through Anne, to rail against an Orthodox definition of Jewishness that is exclusionary and based on racial categories (and the hypocrisy regarding anti-Semitism that he perceives as inherent in this definition). Because Howard is no longer speaking to her, Anne makes her points through her reading groups and through a speech on why people hate literature; evidently in Hollywood no remark goes without multiple repetitions.

The human tendency to divide people into "us" and "them" is a persistent problem worthy of discussion. I'm not persuaded by Burr's analysis, in part because he does not deal with power differentials, which I believe are critical to understanding group identity. Still, Burr could have written a thought-provoking article posing the same questions and explicating how literature casts light on the subject. Unfortunately, framing the questions in novelistic form doesn't add much to the discussion. The book's two halves feel like they belong in different novels (or perhaps a novel and a nonfiction work), and the characters' responses to life events don't seem real. One example in addition to Howard's response to Sam's experience in Israel: would you take your recently out teenage son and drop him off at the home of a gay writer you met once for three hours (when you witnessed an accident in which the writer hit a gardener with his car), so your son could learn about being a well-adjusted gay man? I think not. The substitution of literary discourse for conversation becomes wearisome. And, on a more picayune point, the incessant name-dropping of Hollywood luminaries and New York's literary lions is annoying and unnecessary.

Favorite passage:
. . . it is impossible to overestimate the pleasure of being included. Even for one who has never much wanted to be.

Of interest:
Burr has established a website where readers can comment on the book or the issues it raises:

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Wrong Mother, by Sophie Hannah

The Wrong Mother provides a creepy look at the dark side of motherhood and children, wrapped up in a complicated mystery. The story is told in three different ways. Sally, a scientist and struggling mother of two, provides first-person accounts of her misadventures: she is pushed under a bus in the first chapter (the bus misses) and then discovers the man she had a dalliance with on a secret vacation the year before is not Mark Bretherick (the name he gave her) when she sees a news report on the murder of Bretherick's wife and daughter. She immediately begins to investigate on her own, with predictably dangerous results.

The work of the six police officers investigating the murder case is told in the third person. Each officer has issues of his/her own, which, while humanizing the officers, overcomplicates the story. We probably do not need to know everything we learn about these people. If the author focused on the two most compelling officers--Charlie (a woman) and Simon--that would be more than enough to convince us these are real people.

The third narrative device the author uses is to include the diary entries found on the computer of Geraldine Bretherick (Mark's wife). Here is where we see the dark side of parenting. The diary includes many entries like this one: "I have never hit her. Not because I disapprove of hitting children . . . but because sometimes I want to hit Lucy so much and I know I would have to stop almost as soon as I started, so what would be the point? It would be like opening a box of delicious chocolates and only being able to eat one." The diary entries are truly cringe-worthy. But the author doesn't spare the children either; some are out of control, one is a cruel bully, and another is a chronic liar--and they're all six or under!

The diary is one of the key clues enabling the police to crack the case--in a twist that seemed totally out of left field to me. And even when they have the culprit in custody, the police still don't quite have the story right, as we learn through a lengthy explication at the end (something we see in way too many mysteries).

While I have a lot of quibbles with the book, I did find it interesting reading and certainly the depiction of parenting would provide ample maerial for discussion.

Favorite passage:
My children spill into the kitchen like survivors form the wreck of the Titanic: damp, unkempt and full of complaints. I tell them in a bright voice that it's shepherd's pie for tea, their favourite . . . Zoe sobs, "Mummy, I don't want shepherd's pie for supper. I want shepherd's pie!"

Friday, December 18, 2009

Strength in What Remains, by Tracy Kidder

In the early 1990s, when I first discovered Tracy Kidder, I inhaled The Soul of a New Machine, House, Among Schoolchildren, and Old Friends. While I was spending months reading Kidder, Deogratias, the young Burundian man who is the subject of Kidder's newest book, was spending months trying escape genocide and civil war in his home country and neighboring Rwanda. Deo eventually found his way to the United States, and the first half of Strength in What Remains intercuts Deo's memories of his youth, his flight, and his early years in New York.

Deo's youth in a cowherding Tutsi family was certainly challenging, but he pursued an education and was a medical student interning in a rural hospital when the killing began. The story of what happened to Deo during the months he was fleeing is harrowing, perhaps only bearable because Kidder presents the events in a matter-of-fact tone. When Deo happens upon a baby clinging to the breast of its dead mother (one of many dead bodies at the site) and must leave the baby because he cannot help it, the horror is overwhelming. It is not surprising to learn that this is one of the incidents that haunts Deo a decade later, when he is still struggling to reconcile what he experienced with the possibility of living some kind of normal life.

Even when he reached the United States, Deo faced years of struggle--he slept in Central Park for some months; worked delivering groceries for a pittance, many days barely eating; and spent hours in the library and Barnes and Noble, surrounded by books he couldn't read but that still provided comfort. Despite the truly awful things he experienced, Deo was in some ways lucky. He survived an attack on the hospital where he was working because he forgot to shut and lock the door when he hid under the bed--the open door convinced the militia that he had fled. Other people repeatedly reached out to help him, both in Burundi and New York. Indeed, a former nun named Sharon found a couple, the Wolfs, who took Deo in and became his de facto parents, helping him enter Columbia University.

The first half of the book is written as though Kidder simply took the story as Deo told it to him and reframed it in third person, without interpretation. In the second half of the book, Tracy Kidder enters the story as an authorial presence. In 2003, Kidder met Deo in Boston, where he was studying public health and working for Paul Farmer at Partners in Health (the person and organization who were the subject of Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains). In this section, Kidder, writing in the first person, describes visiting significant sites in New York with Deo and then spends an extended period on a trip to Africa that he took with Deo in 2006. Deo was by then a medical student at Dartmouth but was also trying to build a clinic in the small community in Burundi where his parents were living. Here, Kidder shares his own interpretation of Deo's actions and explores the conflicting needs to forget and to remember.

Strength in What Remains (the title is from a Wordsworth poem) is a powerful work. The first part of the book becomes more and more difficult to read as we learn more about what Deo endured. I was grateful for Kidder's presence in the second half , helping me make sense of Deo's experiences and, perhaps, protecting me from their weight. And Deo himself is an inspiration, scarred but not broken, able to move to what Kidder calls "that place beyond horror," a place that few of us can imagine.

Favorite passages:

Deo looked forward to those times after sunset, when, all the chores done, his grandfather would tell stories, out in the mountains and especially back in Butanza. Children were warned not to traffic in made-up stories during daylight hours. If you did, you'd never grow up, the adults said. But fictions were permitted at nighttime, especially stories told by elders.

Nothing had come of the threat. It was like the noise one hears lying in bed at night, a noise outside the house. As time goes by you doubt the noise was real, and then again you don't.

I imagined him sitting late at night in one of Butler Library's twenty-four-hour study rooms, poring over the likes of Kant and Hume and Plato, his favorite of all the philosophers he read, looking for a means to close the gap between what he'd experienced and what he was able to say, looking for something reliable in a world that had become untrustworthy, looking for some sort of structured belief, some grand encyclopedia with an index in which he could look up "genocide" and learn where it fit in the universe. He was, I imagined, looking for an antidote to loneliness, both cosmic and personal. And needless to say, he hadn't quite found it.

A lot of Western thought and psychological advice assume that it is is healthy to flush out and dissect one's memories, and maybe this is true. And yet for all that, I began to have a simultaneous and opposite feeling: that there was such a thing as too much remembering, that too much of it could suffocate a person, and indeed a culture. Our tour of sites began to seem relentless. Observing Deo's endlessly renewed sorrow, I found myself thinking that there was something also to be said for a culture with a word like gusimbura.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

No Time to Wave Goodbye, by Jacquelyn Mitchard

In 1996, Jacquelyn Mitchard's The Deep End of the Ocean leapt onto the bestseller list when Oprah picked it as the first selection in her book club. The book chronicled the troubles of the Cappadora family, whose son Ben was kidnapped at age 3. Father Pat throws himself into work, mother Beth (mad with grief) becomes essentially a zombie, and older son Vinnie blames himself and eventually slides into trouble. Only baby Kerry seems to have a chance to be happy/normal despite the horrendous parenting she receives. When Ben is found nine years later, the initial joy is quickly replaced by new conflicts (e.g., Ben, who prefers to be called Sam, loves the father who raised him [unaware that his wife had kidnapped her son] and cannot relate to his biological parents), many left unresolved at the end of the book.

Thirteen years later, Mitchard has written a sequel, and it starts promisingly. The Cappadora family is at the premiere of Vinnie's second documentary film; Beth and Pat do not know that kidnapped children are the subject of the film, on which Vinnie, Ben, and Kerry all collaborated. Beth's shock when she realizes what the film is about is understandable, but she quickly decides to put her own feelings aside and support Vinnie, who has struggled to emerge from his troubled youth. We also get glimpses of five other families whose children have been kidnapped and who are still living in the agony of not knowing what happened to the kids. These snapshots of the families are also compelling.

Soon, however, the book descends into soap opera territory--Vinnie is nominated for an Oscar, another child in the family is kidnapped, police from so many jurisdictions get involved that you can barely keep track of who they are, and Vinnie, Ben, and a professional tracker head off into a mountain snowstorm looking for the missing child (what happens to them is utterly predictable). The final chapter feels like a piling-on of happy endings.

Having liked The Deep End of the Ocean, I was sorry this book fell apart after the first 50 pages.

Favorite passage:
(Finding my favorite passage in the last paragraph of the Acknowledgments says something about the writing of the book itself, I'm afraid.)
This is a work of fiction, set in an imagined Chicago and an imagined California, where the real and the fictional slip over each other like plates of the earth. The choices I made were composed of the geography of fact and the geography of dreams. All the events are products of the author's imagination, and any similarity to actual localities and events is both the result of coincidence and the sum of my own experience.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, by Zadie Smith

I've been an avid reader since I learned to read (with a few "lost years" while my children were young). When I consider the essays of literary criticism in this collection by Zadie Smith, however, I wonder if what I do even qualifies as reading. She brings to the task knowledge of literary history and theory, analysis tools, and a willingness to read, reread, and read again in the pursuit of the "difficult gift" of understanding. Indeed, she advocates for that kind of close reading--and yet, I know that, while I may try to become a more careful reader, I will never construct sentences resembling this one (and dozens if not hundreds of others): "It's a little perverse, in fact, how profoundly he was attracted, as a fiction writer, to exactly those forms of linguistic specialization he philosophically abhorred."

So it may not be surprising that I preferred the essays in the volume that are not literary criticism. "That Crafty Feeling" explores how Smith approaches the work of writing a novel--something that is always interesting to the members of our book group. She categorizes writers as Macro Planners (who have the structure, characters, and plot of their book worked out before they start writing) and Micro Managers (who don't know what they are going to write until they start writing) and describes how she, as a micro manager, works.

In "Speaking in Tongues" Smith reflects on voice, examining what adopting a certain accent means in class-conscious England (Smith herself is a biracial Brit from a working class family who reports that she now speaks in the posh tones of someone educated at Cambridge--but regrets the loss of her other voice) and on what it may mean for the American president to be someone raised "between cultures, between voices." These two essays appear in a section titled "Being," which also recounts a trip to Liberia.

In "Seeing," Smith includes movie reviews, paeans to two of her favorite actresses (Katherine Hepburn and Greta Garbo), and an amusing essay entitled "Ten Notes on Oscar Weekend." The section "Feeling" includes three essays about her family.

Smith writes beautifully and I enjoyed many of the essays; the literary criticism was a tough slog and made me feel inadequate to boot. So my recommendation would be to be selective in approaching this volume unless you love literary theory and/or have no self-esteem issues!

Favorite passages:

The novels we know best have an architecture. Not only a door going in and another leading out, but rooms, hallways, stairs, little gardens front and back, trapdoors, hidden passageways, et cetera.

It's oddly oppressive to set off on a journey into a place so thoroughly imagined by other people.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Best Friends Forever, by Jennifer Weiner

I heard Maureen Corrigan give this book a favorable review on NPR, so I decided to give Weiner, one of the most successful "chick lit" writers, another chance. The story is set on the weekend of a class reunion, when Valerie, a TV weather woman, decides to take her revenge on Dan, who raped her in high school. After leaving him nude in the parking lot, she accidentally hits him with her car. Fearing she has killed him, she seeks out her old friend Addie, a greeting card illustrator who has recently lost a lot of weight. Jordan, the chief of police in the town, immediately falls for Addie when he comes to her house to question her about the blood and belt found in the parking lot after the reunion. The two women then take off on a cross-country trip to evade the police, but Jordan has a hunch that they are headed for Key West and follows. Meanwhile Dan has been picked up by an evangelical classmate, Merry, who tends to him while trying to convince him to repent for his sins (Kathy Bates's character in Mercy is referenced).

We get glimpses into the difficulties in Valerie and Addie's childhoods and Addie's sad romantic life through first-person chapters narrated by Addie; the trials of Jordan's marriage and the police investigation into the crime are told through third-person chapters from his viewpoint. Occasional chapters describe Dan's nearly hallucinogenic experience of the weekend. Of course, all ends well.

I don't know what Maureen Corrigan was thinking: this book is idiotic. Jennifer Weiner is once again off my list!

Favorite passage: None

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The 19th Wife, by David Ebershoff

Ebershoff has crafted a very interesting novel, combining the stories of Ann Eliza Young, Brigham Young's 19th wife, who became a crusader to end polygamy, and Jordan Scott, a modern-day "lost boy" from a polygamist cult. Young's story is told through fictionalized historical documents, including her memoir (she actually wrote a memoir that sold widely in the late 1800s, but Ebershoff has re-created the document to meet his purposes), letters from one of her sons to a researcher, excerpts from Brigham's diaries, newspaper articles, LDS church documents, and a modern-day senior thesis by a budding feminist LDS scholar. While almost all of these documents were written by Ebershoff, they give readers a sense of constructing the story themselves as they sift through the documents. And Ebershoff does a good job of giving the supposed creators of the documents individual voices.

The contemporary story--which involves Jordan in trying to solve the mystery of his father's murder, for which his mother (also a 19th wife) has been arrested--is told in a more traditional first-person narrative. The mystery is wrapped up a bit too conveniently, but Jordan and the friends he makes in the process of exonerating his mother are endearing. For a considerable number of pages, the parallel stories seem only to be connected by the common subject--polygamy and the 19th wife--but another more direct link appears later. The way that link plays into the ending of the book actually caused me to rethink how I read the earlier sections, which was an enjoyable twist.

The book is much more than the two stories, however; it is also a look at the history of the Mormons, the practice of polygamy, and whether the modern-day church bears any responsibility for the treatment of women and children in the polygamist cults that have been much in the news in the past few years. While many events in the story as told by Ebershoff cast a negative light on the early LDS church, the author also shows respect for the power of faith.

While I didn't love this book, I found it very interesting and I am really looking forward to discussing it Monday night when Novel Conversations meets. I think it's an excellent book group selection--much to discuss about the writing, the construction of the text, and the ideas Ebershoff presents.

Favorite passage:
To me, this younger Brigham looks a lot like Russell Crowe.

(This is a footnote in the women's studies senior thesis written by character Kelly Dee--and it cracked me up. Though I'm not sure a young scholar would include such a footnote in her paper, she definitely would have had the thought. And to give her more respect, below is her [and Ebershoff's, we presume] take on the church's responsibility for modern-day polygamists.)

At some point, I saw the connection between Ann Eliza Young, nineteenth-century Mormon polygamy, and the polygamists of today. Polygamists like the Firsts in Mesadale are not Mormons; we are not of the same Church. This is not in dispute. Yet they are the unintended consequences of Joseph and Brigham's polygamous policies. To deny this is to deny the cold facts of history. To ignore their stories is to abandon Christian principles. And so I could not look away.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Labor Day, by Joyce Maynard

It's a brutally hot Labor Day weekend in New Hampshire. Henry, the 13-year-old narrator of the book, has convinced his mother to take him to the discount store for some new school clothes; the fact that this trip is highly unusual is one of the early clues that his mother has some serious problems that circumscribe Henry's life.

In the store, Henry is approached by a man who is bleeding from the head and leg. The man asks Frank and then his mother Adele to take him home with them. Somewhat inexplicably, they do. Soon, they learn that Frank is an escaped convict; the first night in their home, he ties up Adele (with silk scarves) so, if necessary, she can say she was coerced and pass a lie detector test.

As the long weekend progresses, both Adele and Henry fall in love with Frank--Adele in the expected way, Henry in the way of a boy who needs a male anchor. Frank shows him how to make a peach pie and how to throw a baseball--and relieves him of the burden of making Adele happy. Meanwhile, as Frank gradually reveals his story to Adele and Henry, Henry also reveals his family's backstory to the reader, and we begin to understand his mother's pain.

Meanwhile, Henry meets a girl on a foray to the library to get books on the Maritime Provinces, where Frank and Adele are considering escaping to. Unsure whether they plan to take him with them, Henry is feeling resentful and tells the girl about Frank...and we begin to anticipate the story's climax although not, perhaps, the happier ending that comes in the denouement.

While the premise is somewhat unbelievable (who would take a bleeding man home from Pricemart and how is that he is exactly the man to bring Adele out of her shell and help Henry come of age?), Henry's voice is a winning one. Maynard portrays him as a combination of the innocent and the damaged old soul--a believable mix for a child who has been raised as he has. Certainly, a book group could find much to discuss in this book.

Favorite passage:
No doubt Richard's father, like my mother, had once held his infant son in his arms, looked into the eyes of his child's mother, and believed they would move into the future together with love. The fact that they didn't was a weight each of us carried, as every child does, probably, whose parents no longer live under the same roof. Wherever it is you make your home, there is always this other place, this other person, calling to you. Come to me. Come back.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Scarpetta Factor, by Patricia Cornwell

I've been reading mysteries series, particularly series written by American women, for probably 20 years. Recently, I've been wondering how many titles an author can write about one character before "jumping the shark" (to borrow a phrase from television).

Several years ago, when Patricia Cornwell brought FBI Special Agent Benton Wesley back from the dead, I thought she had gone off the rails. But I gave her another chance and she seemed to be back on track. Unfortunately, The Scarpetta Factor is a full-scale train wreck.

At the beginning of the book, three of the four main characters--medical examiner Kay Scarpetta, her husband Benton Wesley, and her niece Lucy Farinelli--all seem as if they're about to have breakdowns. (When police officer Pete Marino is the sanest of Scarpetta's characters, you know something is wrong.) Meanwhile, they are working the disappearance of a tycoon's daughter (who is the cause of Lucy losing her fortune), the murder of a jogger, and what appears to be a stalking of Benton and Kay. After nearly 500 pages, everything leads back to a psychotic killer from one of the earlier Scarpetta books, Jean-Baptiste Chandonne. Cornwell has always been good at creating truly creepy characters, but here Chandonne's creepiness is talked about but not experienced.

The bulk of the story revolves around computerized data analysis in one form or another--yawn! Kay spends almost no time in the autopsy room --instead, she's searching an apartment with Lucy and analyzing documents. By the end of the book, everyone seems to have regained their equilibrium for no apparent reason (except for Wesley, who is rid of a couple of his archnemeses and thus could be expected to be in a somewhat better mood).

Not recommended!

Favorite passage: None

Saturday, November 21, 2009

After You, by Julie Buxbaum

After You is Julie Buxbaum's second novel, following The Opposite of Love. While both feaure 30-something heroines struggling with family and relationship issues, I found After You to be a story with greater depth. Ellie Lerner, still struggling with the stillbirth of her son Oliver two years ago, is called to London when her best friend Lucy is murdered. Ellie steps in to help Lucy's husband Greg with eight-year-old Sophie; as the relationship with Sophie grows, so does Ellie. Her own marriage to Phillip, however, is about to collapse under the weight of her continued absence from Boston and the couple's failure to reconcile their different ways of grieving their son's death. At the same time, Ellie is discovering that Lucy had secrets she had kept from her best friend.

Those who have read The Opposite of Love would expect some humor from Buxbaum, and that is provided by Ellie's parents, a psychologist and professor who are planning to remarry after an endless cycle of break-ups and reconciliations. There's also a minor subplot featuring Ellie's brother Mikey and Sophie's teacher Claire.

I'm also starting to expect hopeful endings from Buxbaum, and After You has that as well. (Fans of Buxbaum might enjoy Stephanie Kallos's books; Kallos can write about terrible pain and still create a happy ending you believe in.)

In The Opposite of Love, Buxbaum used what was to me an annoying device: positioning the book as a letter from the main character to her child. Here, she uses the trope of rereading (I got that phrase from my literary scholar son and I may be misusing it)--in this case The Secret Garden--to greater effect. I don't think I've ever read The Secret Garden, but I plan to pick it up to see if reading it changes how I view After You.

I enjoyed this book and look forward to seeing how Buxbaum continues to evolve as a writer.

Favorite passages:
I know how to play the victim. I've done that before, maybe have been doing it for almost two years, since Oliver. And after a while, playing the victim is a form of complicity too. Seems to me that marriage can spin a thousand species of betrayal. Adultery is only one of them.

. . . sad is too light a word; I am crushed by a quiet pain. Sounding flip seems to be my only option.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Fidelity, by Grace Paley

I've been trying to read more poetry this year, but I see this is the first poetry collection I've read since I started blogging, so...

This collection by the venerable Paley was published after her death--and aging, illness, and death are themes of many of the poems. Other themes are the work of the poet, family, and the problems of the world that cry out for action (Paley was well known as an activist). While this litany of topics makes the poems sound horribly dark (and certainly some poems are very sad), Paley's wry humor, close observation, and love of family lift the collection out of the slough. For example, an untitled poem about elderly people in a nursing home is told from the perspective of a little girl who finds the way in which the seniors sit and sometimes yell very interesting. Another poem, titled "My Sister and My Grandson," is a lovely description of Paley's conversations with her dead sister.

I have to admit that I am not a skilled reader of poetry (Mrs. Stotmeister seemed to know this when she confronted me in sophomore English, but that's a story for another venue), so I enjoy accessible rather than obscure poems--and most of the poems in this collection are well within the reach of similarly limited readers of poetry.

Favorite passages:
To translate a poem/from thinking/into English/takes all night/night nights and days/(From "Night Morning," page 58)

Believe me I am/an unreliable/narrator (From an untitled poem, page 57)

I had put my days behind me/almost as they happened rolling/faces streets personal dramas/into a scroll quickly/quickly sometimes my heels/were caught in the last conver-/sation so shaking to free/myself all that clutter flew/up into the air (From "Detour," page 69)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Evening with Kent Haruf

Tonight was the One Book One Broomfield event with author Kent Haruf. It was really interesting--he talked about his life and career, read a chapter from Eventide (I beileve he said it was Chapter 37--about Raymond going to the Firemen's ball and meeting Rose), and answered questions.

A few notes:

1. He grew up in a small town in northeastern Colorado. His dad was a storyteller and both of his parents were readers, so he grew up believing storytelling and reading were what adults did. And he thinks that's what all kids should grow up thinking.

2. The McPherons were the first characters he had written about that he felt he wanted to write more about. They're not based on specific people he knew (although he does remember two rancher brothers who came to his dad's church when he was a kid), but he tried to give them the most noble characteristics of the ranchers he has known. And he gave them the last name of a beloved aunt and uncle. It sounds like they are very important characters to him.

3. He sees Eventide as a story of loss and how people deal with loss, so it is darker than Plainsong but he sees loss as a universal experience and tried to write the characters so that the reader would empathize with their losses. While the events take place in a small town--which allows him to convey situations in a starker manner--he reminded us that similar stories are also happening in our town.

4. He doesn't use quotation marks because (1) he likes the way the page looks without them (less cluttered) and (2) he thinks not using them causes the reader to slow down because he/she has to think about whether it's exposition or dialogue that they're reading...and slowing down is a good thing. However, when he teaches writing or English, he requires students to use proper conventions until he is sure they have mastered those conventions; then he allows them to experiment.

5. He thinks about a book for a year before he starts writing and, by the end of the year, he knows what will happen to all the characters. Yet it still may take him years to write the book. He sometimes writes the first draft of a scene (on a manual typewriter) with his eyes closed or even with a stocking cap pulled over his eyes to keep him from fixating on writing the perfect sentence, choosing the right word, getting the punctuation right, etc. Then once he has the scene in a formt hat he thinks has the right overall shape, he may refine it for several weeks.

6. He's a morning person, so he usually starts working around 8:30 a.m. First he writes in a journal about his everyday life. Then he reads for 30 to 60 minutes--Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, Steinbeck--something he's read many times before. It's to get his mind away from his day-to-day life. He reviews what he's been working on and then tries to write new stuff. By noon, he's tired!

7. If he doesn't read some fiction in a day, it's not a good day.

I'm sure others would have other notes, but those are the things that are boucning around in my mind.

Upcoming Books

Here are the next four months of reading for the Novel Conversations book group:

December: The Nineteenth Wife, by David Ebershoff
January: Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout
February: Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zaafon
March: The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Slaughterhouse-five, by Kurt Vonnegut

Sometimes I think my education was sorely lacking--there are so many books I've haven't read, from classics to modern sensations like Slaughterhouse-five.

Central to the book is the fire-bombing of Dresden in WWII and the survival of a group of American prisoners of war who were sheltered in an underground meat locker at the slaughter=house where they slept. Vonnegut himself was among that number, and he appears in the book as the narrator in early and late chapters and occasionally throughout the narrative. The main character, however, is Billy Pilgrim, a chaplain's assistant who becomes unhinged in time, bouncing from the horrors he experiences as a POW to his later life, his death, his kidnapping and imprisonment (in a zoo) by a species of aliens (Tralfamadorians).

The Tralfamadorians have an interesting philosophy. Two key elements: there is no free will and all moments in time exist simultaneously so no one actually dies. After he survives a plane crash 20 years after the war, Billy goes public with his time travel and becomes a minor sensation, spreading the wisdom of the Tralfamadorians wherever he can find an audience (including to a young patient at his optometry practice).

While the book is sometimes classified as science fiction, I never suspended belief enough to take the time travel scenario seriously. Instead, Billy seemed delusional--and with plenty of reason, given what he went through in his military service. In addition, Vonnegut suggests near the end of the book that Billy's "experiences" may have been based on plots of novels by his favorite writer, Kilgore Trout (or at least that's how I read it).

An interesting style note: Vonnegut inserts the phrase "So it goes" numerous times throughout the narrative, after the description of some horrific event or of a death. Each time you read the phrase, it is a reminder of the prominence of death in life.

This would be a great book for a book group discussion--there's a lot it's hard for the individual reader to process/decipher, and an opportunity to talk to others about the meaning they take from the book would be helpful.

Favorite passages:

It wasn't safe to come out of the shelter until noon the next day. When the Americans and their guards did come out, the sky was black with smoke. The sun was an angry pinhead. Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead. So it goes.

If what Billy Pilgrim learned from the Tralfamadorians is true, that we will all live forever, no matter how dead we may sometimes seem to be, I am not overjoyed.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson

This book came highly recommended by my friend (and book group colleague) Suzy. As I struggled to get into it, she told me it got off to a slow start but then it picked up. By page 300, I was still waiting for it to "pick up."

The book is full of characters--too many named Vanger to be able to keep up with how they are all related (I rediscovered the handy family tree too late)--but the main characters are journalist Mikael Blomkvist and hacker/researcher Lisbeth Salander. As the book opens, Blomkvist has been convicted of libel against financier Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. Salander, who is socially inept and clearly hiding some major secrets from her past, is investigating Blomkvist for an attorney, who, it turns out, works for retired industrialist Henrik Vanger. Vanger invites Blomkvist to his home in a small Swedish town and asks Mikael to investigate the 30-years-past disappearance or murder of his niece Harriet. Eventually, Blomkvist engages Salander to help with his investigation and they uncover evidence of a number of heinous crimes against women and solve the case of Harriet. Just as you think the book should be ending, they take on the task of exposing Wennerstrom and that plot goes for another 70 pages or so.

The two main characters are interesting and there's certainly a lot of plot. However, I found the notion that Blomkvist relatively easily cracked Harriet's case when police and others had been unable to do so rather unbelievable. And the sections about the financial crimes of the evil Hans-Erik Wennerstrom bored me to tears.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has been an international bestseller. It comes with a sad authorial story, as well: Larsson died at age 50 of a heart attack, shortly after he delivered the manuscript for this book and two sequels to the publisher. The book is translated from the Swedish and I wonder if that is, in part, a reason for my disaffection from a book that many have loved. I often find translated works have a somewhat flat tone, and I felt that here: Scenes of incredible violence are recounted in nearly emotion-free language. Of course, without reading the original (and my Swedish is .... well, I haven't any Swedish), there's no way of knowing if that's the author's style or an artifact of translation.

Favorite passage:
Sadly, I didn't mark a single page (and there are 465 of them). Hope someone else will chime in with a contradictory view.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Julie and Julia, by Julie Powell

I love this book. I loved it when I read it shortly after it came out. And I love it today, when I have just finished rereading it for book group.

I know all the reasons for not loving it--Julie Powell is an obnoxious, self-absorbed crybaby who uses too much foul language and doesn't really write all that well. I don't care.

I love The Project--cooking her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year and blogging about it. Crazy and brilliant.

I love her descriptions of the food and her often-klutzy efforts to produce that food. I love her devotion to Julia; the brief sections in which she writes about Julia and Paul are sweet and respectful. She maintains her devotion even when she learns that Julia isn't devoted to The Project and even as she mocks the lengths Julia's recipes demand she go (boil the rice, taste it grain by grain, rinse it, wrap it in cheesecloth, and steam it--come on!). I love her whacked-out sense of humor ("laughter through nausea is my favorite emotion").

I don't think the book has anything particularly important to say about life (though she reaches for that at the end) and I probably would have wanted to smack Julie Powell if I'd actually been around for one of her meltdowns--but the book entertained me no end.

Favorite passage:
There is clarity in the act of peeling a potato, a winnowing down to one sure, true way. And even if afterward you do push it through some gadget you got at Crate and Barrel, the peeling is still a part of what you do, the first thing.

Of interest:
If you haven't seen the movie, do. Nora Ephron did a fabulous job expanding the sections on Julia and Paul and intercutting them with Julie and Eric's pursuit of The Project. It's sweet and funny and thoroughly enjoyable.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, by Barbara Kingsolver

I love Barbara Kingsolver. I first fell in love with Pigs in Heaven; backtracked to read The Bean Trees, Animal Dreams, and Homeland and Other Stories; bought The Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer in hardback as soon as they were out; and read her books of essays. She writes beautifully...and she has a point of view that is uniquely hers.

So why did I resist buying Animal, Vegetable, Miracle until it was out in paperback; let it sit on my nightstand for months after I bought it; and dawdle over reading it once I started? Perhaps it's the guilt--knowing that she was writing about her family's experience changing their eating habits by adopting a locavore approach and knowing that, while I see the argument, I'm too lazy to grow and preserve my own food.

I loved the parts of the book when Kingsolver is relating her family's story--their move from Arizona to Virginia, their nervousness in beginning the year (that would extend indefinitely) of eating locally, dealing with the challenge of the too-successful zucchini crop, teaching turkeys how to mate, and more. Her words and her family charm you as they demonstrate the many benefits of eating locally grown, seasonal foods. Kingsolver's husband Steven Hopp contributes sidebars on a wide variety of topics--from the arguments against concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to how to develop recipes for use with your bread machine. Her daughter Camille Kingsolver describes seasonal cooking and provides recipes and typical family menus for each season (the recipes are also available at

I was less taken with the sections of the book in which Kingsolver is writing in a journalistic style with a strong pinch of editorializing about topics like the economics of small farms, organic certification, and the history of farming. All of the topics are woven into the story of their family's locavore experiment, but honestly it became a bit much, as does her fervor for the locavore approach Can a working class or poor family living in an urban area in the Rust Belt really follow this approach to eating? I have serious doubts.

Even though this is my least favorite Kingsolver book, it would provide plenty of fodder (pun intended) for a book group. And I, perhaps, will try to buy more food at farmers' markets next year.

Favorite passages (she does write beautifully about food and family):
The Saturday of Labor Day weekend dawned with a sweet, translucent bite, like a Golden Delicious apple. I always seem to harbor a childlike hope through the berry-stained months of June and July that summer will be for keeps. But then a day comes in early fall to remind me why it should end, after all.

I do know that flavors work their own ways under the skin, into the heart of longing. Where my kids are concerned I find myself hoping for the simplest things: that if someday they crave orchards where their kids can climb into the branhes and steal apples, the world will have trees enough with arms to receive them.

To this tasty native assembly [of foods] add a cohort of female relatives sharing work and gossip in the kitchen, kids flopped on the living room floor watching behemoth cartoon characters float down a New York thoroughfare on TV, and men out in the yard pretending they still have the upper-body strengh for lateral passes, and that is a perfect American day.

When I'm cooking, I find myself inhabiting the emotional companionship of the person who taught me how to make a particular dish, or with whom I used to cook it. Slamming a door on food-rich holidays, declaring food an enemy, sends all the grandparents and great aunts to a lonely place . . . Here I stand in the consecrated presence of all they wished for me, and cooked for me. Right here, canning tomatoes with Camille, making egg bread with Lily. I find myself begging every memory: Come back for a potholder hug.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Evidence, by Jonathan Kellerman

It's been a slow reading 10 days--despite the fact that I've been reading mysteries, which usually go quickly.

At any rate, Evidence is Jonathan Kellerman's 24th book in the Alex Delaware series. Since Alex is a child psychologist, the early books in the series involved cases in which the victims or the perpetrators were psychologically damaged children; Milo Sturgis, case-closer extraordinaire, called in Alex on these cases because of his special insight into child psychology.

Somewhere along the line--perhaps in this book, perhaps in an earlier one (without my noticing)--Milo stopped needing any pretext for calling Alex and just involves him when he feels like it. The interrelated cases that are at the heart of Evidence--a double murder in an abandoned mansion owned by a Southeast Asian sultan, the burning of that same mansion a few days later, the shooting of a former crime scene investigator, the disappearance of a Swiss woman who was dating the sultan's brother--do not involve children or particularly complex psychopathologies. Alex is just along to provide the narration--and the mystery is much less engaging for it.

Kellerman here offers multiple-page passages recounting Milo's interrogation of various suspects. While Milo was always a good detective, I don't remember this focus on his interrogation techniques in earlier books (the scenes feel Closer-inspired). And we get none of the tension around Alex's personal life that marked earlier works.

All in all, a disappointment.

Favorite passage:
Post-industrial humanity is a criminal biomechanical disruption of the natural order.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Rough Country, by John Sandford

John Sandford's specialty seems to be quirky, tough, politically-incorrect-but-with-the-heart-of-a-new-man cops who have another talent (designing games, travel writing) that gives them additional depth. Now that Lucas Davenport (hero of Sandford's Prey series) has settled into being a married dad who seems to have lost a bit of his edge, Sandford has started a second series featuring Virgil Flowers. Flowers wears obscure rock band t-shirts, has blonde surfer hair, and thinks through the crimes he's investigating while fishing.

Rough Country is set in northern Minnesota, where a guest at lodge catering to women (many of whom are lesbians but also like to play around with the waiters and dock boys) is shot as she watched an eagle's nest from her boat. Although there are numerous red herrings, it seems fairly obvious that the murder--and an earlier killing in Iowa--are linked to Wendy Aschbach's band. Sandford at first makes us think the killer is a woman, then lets us know it's not, and finally clues us in to who the killer is a few pages before Virgil breaks the case. It's an interesting technique, which keeps the reader from getting frustrated with the lack of progress in Virgil's investigation.

Is Rough Country a great mystery? No, but if you like the kind of character Sandford creates, it's a fun read.

Favorite passage:
. . . the sound was so distant, so intermittent, so thready, that it was like aural smoke--a noise on the edge of nothingness.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Weight of Silence, by Heather Gudenkauf

I bought this book at LAX in mid-September and didn't finish it until last night when I was on a plane back from Chicago with nothing else to read. So that probably gives you a good clue as to how fond I am of The Weight of Silence.

This book feels like a creative writing exercise--start with a scene that establishes dread, flashback to the events that led to the scene, use multiple narrators, and show the effects of a social problem. And why not put some kids in peril? Hillary Jordan used virtually the same formula in Mudbound (see the very first post on this blog) but did it with greater skill and in a way that actually illuminated a time, a place, and a social issue. We don't learn anything new about alcoholism (or domestic abuse or predators) from Heather Gudenkauf--it's all been written about (better) before. We don't even learn much about the one rather unique problem in her story--selective mutism.

So, if you're in Hudson's Booksellers in your favorite airport, don't let the resonant title or nice cover design make you reach for your wallet.

Favorite passage: I still like the title.

My Life in France, by Julia Child

After seeing Julie and Julia and loving Julia and Paul Child (as portrayed by Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci), I had to read My Life in France. Julia Child wrote the book with Paul's grandnephew Alex Prud'homme shortly before her death, drawing on her memories, as well as letters and other documents. The focus is on the years the Childs spent in France after World War II, but also extends beyond that era.

The book is a fun read for a food lover; learning about the effort it required to bring Mastering the Art of French Cooking to life is truly fascinating. While the differences in eating and cooking traditions in France and the United States were an obvious challenge, I never considered the complications of differences in ingredients available (flours are evidently infinitely variable). Julia's testing of techniques and recipes makes her sound like a pioneer in molecular gastronomy, the scientific approach to cooking so popular now. Since Paul worked for the USIA, the Childs were also affected by political events (e.g., McCarthyism), which adds another layer of interest.

It's surprising to note that the Julia Meryl Streep portrayed in Julia and Julia was in her late 30s. While Meryl certainly doesn't look her age (60), it's a Hollywood oddity to see an actress play someone 20 years younger--perhaps Meryl was chosen because the Julia that Americans knew on PBS's The French Chef was older (and, of course, because she's Meryl Streep).

In reading and seeing Julie and Julia, I wondered why Julia disapproved of Julie Powell's project. After reading My Life in France, I can see that, after spending years writing the book, Julia might have found someone trying to cook her way through the recipes in a year insulting and/or trivial. In addition, there's a streak of coldness that comes through in the book--she says of herself, "I have never been very sentimental," and her response to her father's death shows that (granted, he was a difficult man, but this response to me is more about her than about him): "I know there were times I could have been better, nicer, more generous toward him, and so forth and so on. But, frankly, my father's death come as a relief more than a shock. I suddenly felt we could go to California whenever we wanted to, without restraints or family bien, l'affaire conclue."

Favorite passage:
. . . I made sure not to apologize for it [bad food]. This was a rule of mine.

I don't believe in twisting yourself into knots of excuses and explanations over the food you make. When one's hostess starts in with self-deprecations such as "Oh, I don't know how to cook...," or "Poor little me....," or "This may taste awful...," it is so dreadful to have to reassure her that everything is delicious and fine, whether it is or not. Besides, such admissions only draw attention to one's shortcomings (or self-perceived shortcomings), and make the other person think, "Yes, you're right, this really is an awful meal!" Maybe the cat has fallen into the stew, or the lettuce has frozen, or the cake has collapsed--eh bien, tant pis!

("This may taste awful" is so me--I'm going to stop it immediately!)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Dear Husband, by Joyce Carol Oates

Short stories are not my favorite literary form; too often, I find myself asking "What?" when I finish a story. But I decided to give Joyce Carol Oates' new collection a try.

Dear Husband, (there's actually a comma in the title) begins with a story ("Panic"), in which a woman acts to protect her child in a moment of perceived danger; her husband feels abandoned, insignificant in the face of her mother-love. While the story is a sad reflection on human nature, it is cheerful compared to the tales that follow. Families are wracked with pain, and lives unravel (with the protagonist quite often providing the initial tug that begins the unraveling). Abigail returns to her family home to help her sister Helen move their father into assisted living and ends up nearly killing him. Aimee, scarred in an accident caused by her older, mentally challenged sister Sallie Grace (but blamed for provoking the shove that sent her into the stove, upsetting the boiling pot of spaghetti), leaves the scissors where she knows her sister can find and use them against another family member. A poet suffers a breakdown while her lover meditates at a Zen retreat; as he decides to call her for the first time in six weeks, she kills herself and their child.

Three of the stories are epistolary. One consists of a series of letters from a prisoner to the author, beginning with admiring notes requesting an autograph and devolving into paranoid threats. Another is a letter from an Andrea Yates-type character to her husband, explaining why she has just killed their children.

Upbeat this collection is not; as I progressed through the book, I felt a growing sense of dread. Yet Oates writes beautifully and I found myself drawn into the fully imagined situations she creates. Certainly, the vision of human nature and family relationships she conveys in these stories would provide ample fodder for a book group discussion.

Favorite passage (for law-related educators everywhere):
Voy deer is a procedure like running a clumsy and unwieldy substance--rags, young tree limbs--through a grinder. So slow! So exasperating!

Favorite story title:
"Suicide by Fitness Center"

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Best American Essays of the Century, edited by Joyce Carol Oates

This tome (well over 500 pages) materialized on my bookshelf after a visit from my younger son, who, having lived in small spaces for 10 years, often sheds belongings when he leaves. I've been slogging my way through it for a year (or is it two?).

The hardest-working-woman in the lit biz, Joyce Carol Oates, along with co-editor Robert Atwan, took on the ridiculous task of choosing the "best" essays from what must have been a nearly insurmountable supply of fine 20th-century essays. They chose 55, written by well-known novelists (e.g., Saul Bellow, John Updike, Alice Walker, Vladimir Nabokov, Eudora Welty, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain), poets (e.g., T.S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, Donald Hall, Adrienne Rich, Robert Frost), scientists/naturalists (e.g., Stephen Jay Gould. Rachel Carson, John Muir), and thinkers/essayists/provocateurs/humorists (e.g., Richard Rodriguez, Martin Luther King, Jr., Susan Sontag, W.E.B. DuBois, Henry Adams, James Thurber).

These writers' topics are highly varied. John Muir described a treacherous journey across an Alaskan glacier with a little dog named Stickeen. Jane Addams examined the attitudes of poor men and women through their reactions to an "urban legend" about a devil baby at Hull House. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of his own breakdown, while E.B. White recounted his return as an adult to the lake where his family rented a camp many years before. Annie Dillard described experiencing a total solar eclipse, while Gerald Early recalled watching an African-American woman win the Miss America Pageant.

Among my favorites:
  • Richard Wright on "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow"
  • Mary McCarthy's story of an encounter with an anti-Semitic Army man, home from World War II ("Artists in Uniform")
  • James Baldwin's reflections on his father's death (and his own life), in "Notes of a Native Son"
  • Tom Wolfe's "Putting Daddy On," in which he details an expeditin to the Lower East Side to help a friend "retrieve his son from the hemp-smoking flipniks."
  • Richard Rodriguez on the role of language in defining self, connecting with family, and being in the world ("Area: A Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood")
  • Gretel Ehrlich on "The Solace of Open Spaces"
Some of the essays are challenging. Gertrude Stein's "What Are Master-pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them" makes virtually no sense to me. And I can't help wondering why Susan Sontag thought it was worth her time to develop 58 numbered notes on the "camp" aesthetic.

Notable to me as an educator is how few of these essays resemble the form that we teach young people as the "essay." While we teach students to use a logical sequential form (thesis statement, supporting evidence, conclusion) with few, if any, personal references, a majority of these essays are personal narratives or reflections. While the essay form taught in schools may still have functions, it appears unlikely to get our young authors in any "best of" essay collections.

Favorite passages:
There are many wonderful passages in these essays. Here are just a couple:

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live." Joan Didion, "The White Album" (it's such a great sentence, she used it as the title for a collection of all her essays)

"Space has a spiritual equivalent and can heal what is divided and burdensome in us. . . .We Americans are great on fillers, as if what we have, what we are, is not enough. We have a cultural tendency toward denial, but, being affluent, we strangle ourselves with what we can buy. We have only to look at the houses we build to see how we build against space, the way we drink against pain and lonelienss. We fill up space as if it were a pie shell, with things whose opacity further obstructs our ability to see what is already there." Gretel Ehrlich, "The Solace of Open Spaces"

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Key Lime Pie Murder, by Joanne Fluke

Key Lime Pie Murder falls into the odd subgenre of culinary mysteries. No, they don't have to do with what spices are used in a stew or what the unidentifiable meat is. They are mysteries in which a main character is a chef, food critic, caterer, innkeeper, or, as in the case of Joanne Fluke's series, a baker. Not only does the character solve the murder, she also provides recipes!

The heroine of Key Lime Pie Murder is the unbelievably sweet Hannah Swenson, co-owner of a small town cookie shop in Minnesota. Hannah has two boyfriends, two sisters, an obnoxious mother, and a penchant for finding dead bodies. When she finds the body of student teacher Willa Sunquist, she immediately sets out to investigate the case. It's hard to take this investigation seriously, given that her boyfriend, one sister's husband, and the other sister's boyfriend are all cops. Wouldn't someone stop Hannah before she nearly gets killed on the Tilt-a-Whirl at the Tri-County Fair? I think that's all you need to know about this book.

Favorite passage: None, but I might try the popovers recipe!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan

Nancy Horan's first novel tells the story of the love affair between renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick Cheney, one of Wright's client (with her husband) in Oak Park, IL. Their relationship was a headline-causing scandal when, in 1909, they left their families (both were married and had children) and moved to Europe.

The story is told from Mamah's perspective, and she was an interesting woman indeed. She had an advanced degree and had had a career before marrying her husband, whom it seems clear she had "settled" for. In Europe, she met and became the translator for Swedish philosopher and feminist Ellen Key. Mamah felt that Key's ideas about marriage and love justified the actions she and Wright had taken; yet she was upset by Key's assertion that the needs of children should be put ahead of those of their mothers. She believed that her relationship with Wright was the intellectual partnership she needed to survive.

After many trials (at one point, Wright returned to his family in Illinois, leaving Mamah nearly penniless in Europe), Mamah and Wright finally began living together at Taliesin, the magnificent home in Wisconsin that Wright designed for the two of them. At Taliesin, however, she began to be more aware of some of Wright's shortcomings--perhaps most notably the fact that, while he touted his vision of democratic architecture, he was personally an elitist whose success was often built on the backs of those who worked for him (and were not paid).

I always struggle with books that take real historical figures as characters. While the outline of the story is true, the authors sometimes take liberty with what we consider facts. And the private scenes, the individual thoughts and feelings are obviously fictionalized. Yet for me, it all starts to feel equally real. An example of how the author confounds this problem is Horan's use of excerpts from actual letters written by Mamah--along with documents that look like primary sources (diary excerpts) but are not. Does it matter that I start to believe it all? At the one reader/one book level, probably not. But if, as a culture, we cannot distinguish between fiction and history, maybe so.

This book is the October selection for our Novel Conversations book group, and I think it's a great book group selection. There's so much to talk about--how to read historical fiction, the characters of Frank and Mamah, the feminist ideas about marriage that Mamah felt justified her actions, the notion of democratic architecture, and on and on.

Favorite passage:
How often had she heard him say I'd rather be honestly arrogant than hypocritically humble? It took a superior attitude not to succumb to the rewards of joining the establishment.

Unfortunately, the attitude had become his persona; he believed it himself now. He had come to mistake his gift for the whole of his character.

Of interest:

You can see photos of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in Oak Park, IL (including the Cheney house) at

T.C. Boyle, who lives in a FLW house in California, published a book (The Women) about Wright and his extramarital activities shortly after Loving Frank was published. According to Colleen, a member of Novel Conversations, Boyle's book gives an even picture of FLW than the Horan book.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Hello Goodbye, by Emily Chenoweth

Helen Hansen, a nice woman who works with juvenile delinquents, is dying of brain cancer. He husband Elliott decides to have a party at a resort in New Hampshire to celebrate their twentieth anniversary (and let their friends say tacit good-byes). Their daughter Abby, soon to be a college sophomore, makes the trip with them and has a dalliance with a waiter at the resort before hooking up with one of Helen's former delinquents.

It's a set-up for a moving story...or at least a tearjerker, but I found myself unaffected (maybe even bored) with the Hansen family and their friends. Maybe someone else who has read the book can explain why I should feel more.

Favorite passage:
He [Elliott] was very proud of her [Abby, his daughter], and that was easier than liking her sometimes. Obviously he loved her; that was a given. But liking ebbed and flowed--she could be impossible--and even his love had conditions. Helen would have thought Abby perfect no matter what she did, but Elliott felt he loved Abby more when she was achieving something. He thought this was a parent's duty. Because what else was the point of life? . . . Also, when Abby was achieving something, she was less of the disconcerting female that adolescene had made her--self-conscious, defensive, moody--and more something he could understand.

Yikes--that captures a certain kind of parent who scares me.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

Arnold "Junior" Spirit has a voice you will not soon forget. He's a bright, brave, and very funny freshman in high school who writes--and draws (the art was done by Ellen Forney)--about the highs and lows of his life on the Spokane Indian Reservation, the problems caused by being "born with water on the brain," and what it is like to be the only Indian student at a small-town high school near the reservation.

There are a lot of lows in the year chronicled in the book--several people close to Arnold die, he loses his best friend, he gets beaten up...repeatedly. But good things happen too--he makes several new friends including another boy who loves to learn and a cute girl who goes to the prom with him and he becomes a star on the high school basketball team. He also comes to accept that he will live his life in a way different from his family members who have stayed in poverty on the reservation.

Author Sherman Alexie is equally scathing in describing racism in the white community Arnold enters to get a better education and the problems of the reservation, especially alcoholism. He also takes on the shortcomings of parents both Anglo and Native American.

Despite being written for a young adult audience, the book offers plenty for an adult reader to think about and enjoy. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian makes me look forward to the time when I can talk about books like this with my granddaughter Meleah.

Favorite passage:
When I was a baby, I'd crawl under my bed and snuggle into a corner to sleep. I just felt warm and safe leaning into two walls at the same time.
When I was eight, nine, and ten, I slept in my bedroom closet with the door closed. I only stopped doing that because my big sister, Mary, told me that I was just trying to find my way back into my mother's womb.
That ruined the whole closet thing.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Finding Beauty in a Broken World, by Terry Tempest Williams

I am fairly certain that Terry Tempest Williams and I are members of the same species. But her mind works so differently from mine that, when I read her work, I feel like I must be part of an inferior subspecies. Williams can focus on one topic in great detail; a large portion of this book is devoted to prairie dogs and the ecosystem they anchor. But she also makes connections that I would never see--the prairie dogs, a course she takes in the art of mosaic, her family's business, her brother's death, and her participation in a project to rebuild Rwanda after the genocide (this section of the book makes clear that she not only thinks differently, she acts differently--all in all, she's a better person than I). She finds patterns in seemingly disparate subjects and events and encourages us to think differently about those patterns.

Her recognition of patterns may explain her gift for metaphor. In this book, the central metaphor is the mosaic, which "celebrates brokenness and the beauty of being brought together." Finding Beauty in a Broken World, she says "becomes more than the art of assemblage. It is the work of daring contemplation that inspires action." The image of the mosaic helps tie together the apparently unrelated topics she deals with in the book.

As the quotes in the previous paragraph suggest, Williams uses language beautifully. With some of the books I have reviewed so far in this blog, I have had to search for a favorite passage. This book has numerous hot pink Post-its adorning its pages, marking particularly effective and affecting passages. While the prose is often lyrical (at times, I was moved by the beauty of the words without fully understanding what Williams was trying to convey), the book is also informative, at times to the ponit of information-overload. While I recognize (or at least suspect) that the piling on of details is a piece of carrying the metaphor of the mosaic into the creation of the book, her detailed descriptions are not always a joy to read. I did find myself skimming over some of her notes on the prairie dog colony and her examination of prairie dog mummies. The section on Rwanda might have benefited from some tightening, too (the editor in me pretty much always wants to cut!).

These criticisms notwithstanding, I recommend the book. For a book group that has difficulty focusing on writing (rather than plot or characterization), this might be a good challenge, since style and content are in some ways one. Certainly there is much to talk about and admire in Williams' work.

Favorite passage:
The evidence of life is preserved through stories. Find the storis. Tell the stories. Theorder of animals is the organization of narratives. Natural histories create a patterned landscape and a mosaic of nuanced minds.

Isn't that lovely (even though I'm not sure what the last sentence means)?

Other favorite passage:
The masterminds of all genocides count on our complicity. They plan, calculate, and execute their intent, trusting in our refusal to acknowledge what they are doing. And in the case of America, instead of inervention, our government debated for months whether the mass killings in Rwanda fulfilled the definition of genocide. The manipulation of extinction is done most efficently through bureaucracies.

And still one more favorite passage (I could go on and on):
But every day, I watch women walking the steep, winding roads of Rwanda carrying their burdens on their heads so they can continue to feed their children. Even under the most severe circumstances, we adjust and find our way. it is more than survival; it is how we ground our dignity and purpose in the mundane occurrences of a day.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Opposite of Love, by Julie Buxbaum

My sister-in-law Kathy recommended The Opposite of Love, the first novel by Julie Buxbaum. Buxbaum drew on her experience as an attorney with a New York litigation firm in creating her protagonist, attorney Emily Haxby. Emily uses an ironic attitude to mask her serious problems--but her close friends and Buxbaum's readers see through the mask early on.

What are her problems? Her mother died when Emily was a teenager. Her father, the lieutenant governor of Connecticut, avoids engaging with Emily and his own father (Grandpa Jack) because he's "busy running Connecticut," his excuse for never showing up when needed. Grandpa Jack is dying. Emily has broken up with her boyfriend Andrew, whom she loved, because he was about to propose. She drinks too much. And, at work, she is assigned to a morally repugnant case under the supervision of a partner who sexually harasses her (in a fairly outlandish series of scenes). When she quits her job and Andrew rebuffs her efforts to reconnect, Emily sinks into a deep depression. Her friend Jess, a good therapist, and her grandfather's friend Ruth help pull her out of the depression, find her a new job, and give her the insight and courage to move forward. (Ruth, a retired judge, is one of the book's best characters, wise, funny, and--above all--caring.)

I enjoyed the book, but still have some quibbles. Foremost among them: The book's Prologue sets up the story as one that Emily is recording for her unborn child. I rarely find this kind of device effective (although I have read--I think in Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer--that many writers use this device because it helps them find the voice in which the story should be told). In this case, it struck me as ineffective and perhaps even counterproductive--ineffective because the book really doesn't seem to me to have the tone you would use in writing to your unborn child (even if you were a thirty-something smart alec) and counterproductive because it signals that the book is going to end happily, removing the possibility that the book might, in fact, be a tragedy.

Favorite passage:
This is a place where, for just a little while, the lack of noise is soothing, expected. I walk under the canopy of trees again and out through the front drive. I pass the stone wall. I tape it lightly with my fingertips. And then I walk out of the Putnam Cemetery and leave the silent and the lost behind, once and for all.

(Okay, maybe my favorite passage is when Emily says she won't shake hands with people at work because of what might be on their hands...but it's too gross for my G-rated blog.)

Friday, September 4, 2009

Made in the U.S.A., by Billie Letts

I enjoyed Billie Letts' Oprah-fueled bestseller Where the Heart Is. Since I describe Where the Heart Is as "the book where the girl gives birth at Wal-Mart," I groaned when this book's opening scene was set in, you guessed it, Wal-Mart. It wasn't my last groan.

Made in the U.S.A. is the story of fifteen-year-old Lutie and her brother Fate, who is 11. When their guardian (their no-goodnik father's former girlfriend) Floy dies in the checkout line at Wal-Mart, they hit the road to Vegas. The road trip is told in a somewhat comical style, although there are also hints that bad things are going to befall the pair (e.g., they pick up a crazy hitchhiker who threatens them with strangulation and stabbing). When they get to Vegas, they learn their father died in jail--on the same day that Floy died, no less. The two are forced to live in their car. While Fate spends his days at the library or picking up golf balls for resale, Lutie shoplifts, gets a tattoo, works two jobs, is raped at one of them, learns to use cocaine at the other, decides to make some quick cash in the porn industry, and finally is beaten to within an inch of her life. Although the two have a "guardian angel" who leaves them food and poorly spelled notes with tips for the homeless, this angel (AKA Juan Vargas, a disabled former Cirque du Soleil aerialist) doesn't actively intervene until Lutie's attackers have nearly killed her. He then swoops in, gets Lutie sewed up, and takes the kids to his grandmother's house in Oklahoma, where the story becomes one of the value of having a tribe. This tribe just happens to be a multi-generational circus family and, oh, did I mention that Lutie was a top gymnast before she was kicked off the team back in Spearfish, South Dakota? You can see the ending coming, I'm sure.

This book is a quick read, which is a good thing, because you wouldn't want to spend much time on it.

Favorite passage: None.

Of interest:
Letts' son Tracy Letts won a Pulitzer and a Tony for his play, August: Osage County. A touring company featuring Estelle Parsons recently staged the play at the DCPA; Parsons, who is over 80, was wonderful as the wacky addicted matriarch of a totally dysfunctional family.

Monday, August 31, 2009

206 Bones, by Kathy Reichs

206 Bones is the 12th installment in Kathy Reichs' Temperance Brennan series. The series is the inspiratin for the TV show Bones; while both the books and the TV show feature a forensic anthropologist named Temperance Brennan who has a sexually fraught relationship with a cop/colleague, they share little else in common.

But back to 206 Bones. The title refers to the number of bones in the human body, and Tempe finds all of them when the body of a long-missing elderly woman is found in a shallow grave in Quebec, one of Tempe's stomping grounds. Days later, several of the phalanges are missing from Tempe's lab, the first sign that problems at the coroner's office go beyond the usual undercutting and (metaphoric) backstabbing. With trouble mounting and Tempe apparently clueless, I wanted to scream, "It's the obnoxious Marie-Andrea, idiot!" And, guess what? It was! Of course, over the course of the 250+ pages it took Tempe to figure it out, she and her colleague/sometime-lover Ryan solved five murders and Tempe managed to get buried in an old tomb on the site of a long-closed military cemetery.

206 Bones is a quick and fairly entertaining read for mystery lovers, though Reichs does get a bit preachy near the end about the need for professional certification for specialists in various forensic sciences. (A good point, I'm sure, but not that much fun to read about.)

Favorite Passage: "Tabarnouche!"

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Novel Conversations Book List

Our book group likes to look at lists of what other groups are reading, so here's a list of what Novel Conversations has read and will read in 2009:
  • January: Dinner with Friends, by Donald Margulies
  • February: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski
  • March: People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks
  • April: The Damascened Blade, by Barbara Cleverly
  • May: Chasing the Monsoon: A Modern Pilgrimage Through India, by Alexander Frater
  • June: Twentieth Wife, by Indu Sundaresan
  • July: Bonk, by Mary Roach
  • August: The Guernsey Lierary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows
  • September: Eventide, by Kent Haruf
  • October: Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan
  • November: Julie and Julia, by Julie Powell
  • December: Not picked yet

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Eventide, by Kent Haruf

As someone who grew up on farms in northern Illinois, I find many novels with rural settings annoying. Some authors romanticize small towns and farm life to the point of the treacly. Others sneer at rural dwellers and their way of life. Kent Haruf gets it right.

Eventide is set in Holt, a small town on the high plains of eastern Colorado, and picks up the story of several characters from Haruf's earlier book, Plainsong. I first read Plainsong and Eventide in rapid succession and didn't feel Eventide held up to its bestselling predecessor. This time, read in more isolation (although I did see the wonderful DCPA production of the play based on Plainsong last spring), Eventide felt stronger.

As Eventide opens, Victoria Roubideaux, the pregnant teenager of Plainsong, is now a young mother about to leave for college in Fort Collins with her daughter Katie. As the McPheron brothers, the elderly ranchers who took Victoria in when she was pregnant and homeless, cope with the loneliness they feel in Victoria and Katie's absence, Haruf introduces five other children, who aren't lucky enough to have Raymond and Harold McPheron in their lives. Joy Rae and Richie live with their parents, who love their children but are unable to protect them from a violent uncle. D.J. is an 11-year-old boy who is essentially a parent to his grandfather. The connection that D.J. makes with a neighbor girl named Dena is beautifully portrayed, but Dena and her sister Emma also face challenges at home: their mother is depressed, drinking, and dating inappropriate men.

While there are moments of hope and even joy in Eventide, the children's stories are profoundly sad. Haruf's spare style keeps the book from falling into melodrama, but the loneliness and pain are no less affecting for being told without flourishes.

Novel Conversations is reading this book for its September 2009 meeting; we chose it because it is the One Book/One Broomfield selection for this year--and I think it's a great book group selection. Unfortunately, I'm going to miss the meeting, but I'm hoping some of my colleagues will post their reflections on the discussion.

Favorite passage:
"It was still hot outside, though the sun had begun to lean to the west, and the first intimations of fall were in the air--that smell of dust and dry leaves, that annual lonesomeness that comes of summer closing down."

Of interest:
The September issue of 5280 Magazine has a nice series of short articles on communities on Colorado's High Plains, along with wonderful photographs:

Plainsong was on President Obama's reading list for his recent vacation.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

American Cream, by Catherine Tudish

So, I crack this book open and the first scene...another death/burial. Two books in a row...too weird. This one, narrated in a whimsical tone by the dead person herself, sets an entirely different tone than the opening of that would lead you to believe that the book is going to have some fantasy/magical realism aspects. But you would be wrong: the rest of the book is a rather straightforward family drama.

Virginia, daughter of the dead woman in the first chapter, is in a snit because her father has remarried just a year after his wife's death (and he married the school lunch lady, which seems to intensify her anger). When her father rolls his tractor and is injured, Virginia decides she must spend the summer helping with the farm work--and she drags her 14-year-old son along with her (leaving her doctor-husband at home). She hooks up with her high school boyfriend (now married and the father of four), buys two rare American Cream horses in an attempt to keep her father from selling the family farm, and gets a wake-up call when her son runs away with the slutty neighbor girl. Oh please.

Most of the book is written in third-person from Virginia's perspective--but the author occasionally throws in a brief chapter in first-person from another character's perspective (Virginia's son, the stepmother, the disabled friend). I'm guessing the author is trying to give us other people's takes on Virginia...but really, we don't need them. We know more than we need to about her.

American Cream isn't a terrible book, but I don't recommend it.

Favorite passage:
"I'm too old to have a stepmother," she told him. "Only kids have stepmothers. And unlucky girls in fairy tales."

Mudbound, by Hillary Jordan

In the opening scene of Mudbound, a first novel by Hillary Jordan, Jamie and Henry McAllen are digging their father's a field at their farm...and while digging find the bones of another unfortunate buried there. The remainder of the book--set primarily in the post-World War II South and told in the voices of six characters--recounts the events that led to the rather gruesome opening scene. The six narrators--Jamie, Henry, and Henry's wife Laura (all white) and Hap, Florence, and Ronsel Jackson (all African-American)--are well-drawn, though characters not given a narrator's role are rather flat.

Central to the story is the racism that permeates the Mississippi community to which Jamie and Ronsel return after serving in World War II. While Jamie's war experiences seemed to feed his self-doubt (and alcoholism), Ronsel's showed him a new vision for living as an African-American man. The two quickly become friends ( Jamie, while progressive compared to other characters, does still harbor racist beliefs), but their friendship comes to a tragic end.

The two female narrators are also powerful voices. Laura was a "spinster" when she met and married Henry, and she delights in married life and motherhood. When her husband relocates the family from her home town of Memphis and brings his despicable father Pappy to live on the mudbound farm he has bought in Mississippi, she is angry and deeply unhappy (with good reason--the place sounds truly awful). She depends on Florence for housekeeping and medical help, but Florence clearly recognizes the limits of their "relationship."

Jordan uses some heavy-handed foreshadowing (one of my pet peeves). She doesn't need to have Hap tell us "That was the last time I ever heard my son's voice." We know something bad is going to happen to Ronsel from the moment he returns to Mississippi. While it is Pappy's grave being dug in the first scene, the reader knows that the real tragedy will occur elsewhere.

While I wouldn't call this a great book, it would be a good selection for book groups, providing plenty of both substantive and stylistic fodder for conversation.

Favorite passage:
"Henry had all the self-confidence that I lacked. He was certain of an astonishing number of things. Packards are the best-made American cars. Meat ought not to be eaten rare. Irving Berlin's "God Bless Ameirca" should be the national anthem instead of "The Star-Spangled Banner," which is too difficult to sing. The Yankees will win the World Series. There will be another Great War in Europe, and the United States would do well to stay out of it. Blue is your color, Laura."

And still she married him...and wore blue.

Intro to Novel Conversations

I just saw Julie and Julia. The movie, like the book before it, made me want to blog. So, not having a clever idea for a marathon of cooking or quilting or whatever, what would I blog about? Social studies education (the area in which I work)? Ugh. Reading (my favorite pasttime)? A little more promising...

So I decided to steal the name of a book group I belong to (and nominally facilitate) and post some mini-reviews of books I'm reading. My son the budding literary scholar will undoubtedly dismiss my ramblings as ill-considered and without critical merit, but perhaps some other avid readers and book group members will find them worthwhile...or at least fun.