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.