Friday, December 31, 2010

Half Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls

Subtitled A True-Life Novel, Half Broke Horses is the story of Jeannette Walls's grandmother, constructed from family stories and historical research and presented in the first person, memoir-style. Since Walls also wrote an actual memoir, The Glass Castle, the "true-life novel" designation creates some confusion in the reader about the extent to which this work is historical and/or a product of the author's imagination.

All of that notwithstanding, Half Broke Horses does present an interesting life story. Walls starts Lily Casey Smith's story with a flash flood that strikes when Lily and her sister and brother are in the pasture. Forced into a tree by the flood, the three children must stay awake all night, clinging to the branches; if they fall asleep, they will fall into the water below and drown. When they survive and return home, their mother claims that her prayers and a guardian angel have saved them. But Lily knows that "I was the one who'd saved us all, not Mom and not some guardian angel."

The grittiness and practicality reflected in that sentence serve Lily well as she works on her dad's Texas ranch, becomes a teacher at 15 (with less than a year of formal schooling behind her), and then moves to Chicago to make a new life. After marrying a "crumb-bum" bigamist, Lily decides to leave Chicago behind and returns to teaching in Red Lake, Arizona. Her sister, Helen, who had moved to Hollywood to become an actress but ended up pregnant and unmarried, soon joins her. When the school authorities say Helen must leave or Lily will be fired, Helen commits suicide, sending Lily into a period of deep grief. She emerges committed to having her own children. As her partner in this endeavor (and husband), she chooses her friend "Big Jim" Smith, a hard-working fallen-away Mormon some years her senior.

Up to this point, I was admiring Lily's spunk and drive, which are still in evidence as she and her husband work to scratch out a living in the Depression. But having read The Glass Castle, I started to feel less admiration as her inflexibility and occasional bursts of violent anger directed at children, including her daughter Rosemary (the author's mother), began to show themselves. Certainly, Lily cannot be held totally responsible for the horrific parenting that Walls and her siblings received--yet the roots of some of Rosemary's problems as an adult do show themselves in Lily's story. By the end of the book, I found no-nonsense flintiness to be an overrated quality.

Favorite passage:

That spring Rex and Rosemary decided to get married. She gave me the news one evening after dinner while we were doing the dishes.

"You need someone solid," I told her. "Haven't I taught you anything?"

"You sure have," she said. "That's all you've been doing my whole life. 'Let this be a lesson.' 'Let that be a lesson.' But all these years, what you thought you were teaching me was one thing, and what I was learning was something else."

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Best of 2010

The year began with rereading, Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout and ended with Lady Susan, by Jane Austen--both books I liked a lot. (Well, actually, the year seems to have ended with Half-Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls, which I didn't like so let's pretend it was Lady Susan.) In between were books that delighted, amazed, and revolted. Here are my favorites:

Best Fiction: The Lake Shore Limited, by Sue Miller
To be honest, I reread my favorite book of 2009 this year--Little Bee, by Chris Cleave--and it was the best book I read this year, too. But I thought I should choose something new, so it's The Lake Shore Limited, which is in fact a wonderful book. At the heart of the book is a play of the same name; the play deals with the aftermath of a terrorist attack and was written by Billy, whose lover died in the 9/11 attacks. In addition to detail about the fictitious play, the novel also has other theatrical elements that are beautifully done. The story is told from the perspectives of four characters: Billy; her late lover's sister Leslie; Rafe, an actor in the play; and Sam, with whom Leslie is trying to set up Billy. Through their stories, Miller explores how relationships change, the futility of guilt, the difficulty of being the partner who lives, and the way in which art works. I was deeply moved by The Lake Shore Limited and it remains fresh in my mind, months later (something of a feat at my age).
Perhaps the most innovative book I read this year was A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan, a writer who may well reinvent the novel. The chapter of the book that was written in the form of a PowerPoint journal was amazing.

Best Nonfiction: Open, by Andre Agassi
Choosing a memoir--and a sports memoir at that--as the best nonfiction book I read in 2010 goes against the grain, but Open is really a very good book, well-written and insightful. Open is an incredible window into the mind of a world-class athlete who is not afraid to lay out his fears, his neuroses, and his bad decisions--along with his triumphs and his slow progress toward a happy and meaningful life. Given Agassi's talent and the success he experienced in his two decades in tennis, I would have expected that the man had a strong sense of self. Nothing could be further from the truth--Agassi seems to have been doomed to years of angst by his childhood at the mercy of his tennis-crazed father and adolescence as a commodity at the factory-like Bollettieri Academy. His frankness makes it possible to have sympathy for gifted athletes who have been pushed in a way the rest of us cannot comprehend.

Best Poetry: Where I Live, by Maxine Kumin
I must admit that I did not read much poetry this year. In fact, this may have been the only collection I read. I did, however, enjoy Kumin's accessible poems about nature and animals, her connections to people, her grief over her husband's death, and her passion about the world and how we live in it. One sample: ". . . life was bleak and sweet and you/made marmalade." I love that.
I did subscribe this year to the Writer's Almanac, a daily email newsletter from American Public Media and Garrison Keillor. Thus, I start the day with a Garrison-selected poem (you can also opt to hear Garrison read the poem, though I usually don't). Today, for example, the poem was "Be Mine," by Paul Hostovsky, which begins with two lines that resonate: "I love mankind most/when no one's around." For more information on the Writer's Almanac, go to

Best Mystery: I'd Know You Anywhere, by Laura Lippmann

I've been reading a lot of mysteries for about 30 years, and I'm beginning to think I should stop. Too many mysteries are lamely plotted, involve way too much "telling" at the end, and frankly aren't worth even the short amount of time it takes to read them. I'd Know You Anywhere, a stand-alone thriller from Laura Lippmann, was worth the time it took to read it. It is a psychological thriller that finds its tension in the interplay between a woman and the man who kidnapped and raped her 20 years earlier.
Sara Paretsky's Body Work was the best series mystery that I read this year.

Lady Susan, by Jane Austen

I got a Kindle for Christmas, and the first book I downloaded was The Complete Works of Jane Austen. To my surprise, I discovered this short epistolary novel, which I had never heard of before. Lady Susan Vernon was recently widowed and is now seeking a new husband for herself, as well as a match for her uncooperative daughter. Her letters reveal her schemes to achieve the best outcome for herself; while she is manipulative and seemingly without moral underpinnings, you have to admire her way with words and her complex plotting. Admiration is far from the mind of her sister-in-law, Lady Catherine Vernon, who is the author of many of the other letters in the novel. She is onto Lady Susan's schemes (although not in every detail) but seems powerless to do anything but rail against them.

The novel is short and lacks the plot complexities of Austen's other works. But her characteristic humor is in evidence, as is her skill in depicting character and the mores of British society. As a fan of the epistolary form, I enjoyed this new-found treat!

Favorite passage:

My understanding is at length restored, and teaches no less to abhor the artifices which had subdued me than to despise myself for the weakness on which their strength was founded. (Lady Catherine's brother Reginald to Lady Susan, breaking off their courtship)

Mainwaring is more devoted to me than ever; and were we at liberty, I doubt if I could resist even matrimony offered by HIM. This event, if his wife live with you, it may be in your power to hasten. The violence of her feelings, which must wear her out, may be easily kept in irritation. I rely on your friendship for this. (Lady Susan to her friend Mrs. Johnson)

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Spider Bones, by Kathy Reichs

The books in Kathy Reichs's Temperance Brennan series are often quite informative. In Spider Bones, Tempe is trying to figure out who is buried in the 40-year-old grave of a man who has just died in Montreal--it appears that the body was misidentified in Vietnam 40 years ago. The mystery takes her to Hawaii to work with the U.S. military's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command; through that collaboration, readers learn a lot about the military's ongoing efforts to find and identify Americans missing from conflicts as far back as the Second World War.

Of course, two bodies are not enough of a challenge for Tempe; as she identifies additional collections of body parts that turn up in various locations in Hawaii, she untangles two cases that appear to be unrelated but actually are closely intertwined. In the process, we learn about sharks, Samoan gangs, and a bizarre genetic anomaly. Frankly, the story is farfetched, but it's still moderately interesting.

The sexual tension with Detective Andrew Ryan actually seems to be gone. Still, the two, along with their daughters--both facing problems of their own--share a house in Hawaii, providing domestic turmoil to accompany the professional challenge.

Not a great mystery--but interesting enough to devote a few hours to.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Ice Cold, by Tess Gerritsen

When the Rizzoli and Isles series debuted on TNT, I wondered why the characters weren't closer to the way they are drawn in Tess Gerritsen's books. Like the series Bones based on Kathy Reichs' book, Rizzoli and Isles seemed to have little to do with the source material.

Unfortunately, this new title in the series is a ridiculous story, engaging the two Boston-based women in a series of crimes in Wyoming that involve not only a polygamous cult but also environmental dumping. Puh-leeze! I begin to understand the television producers' decision!

Cross Fire, by James Patterson

Note to self: Do not read any more James Patterson books. And, should he kill off Alex Cross as he threatens in his silly/creepy TV ads as a result, I would consider it my contribution to American literature.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

I Remember Nothing and Other Reflections, by Nora Ephron

Nora Ephron is a funny woman; in I Remember Nothing she once again brings her wit to the subject of aging (she can't remember things or people--one day she didn't recognize her sister when her sister approached her, arms outstretched, in a mall) and some of what she does remember about her earlier life. She also rants on subjects as diverse as egg-white omelets, e-mail, and the ubiquity of Thomas Friedman.

Some of my favorite pieces:

In "Journalism: A Love Story," she describes what it was like to start at Newsweek in 1962 when male college grads were reporters and female grads worked in the mailroom; happily, she found a journalistic "home" (the New York Post) where women were given greater opportunities. She loved journalism: "I loved the city room. I loved the pack. I loved smoking and drinking scotch and playing dollar poker. I didn't know much about anything, and I was in a profession where you didn't have to. I loved the speed. I loved the deadlines. I loved that you wrapped the fish."

"Christmas Dinner" is indeed about a meal, but it's also about what happens when the glue holding a group of friends together dies and they try to continue on without her--things don't go well for Ephron's group because Ruthie "was the thing that gave us the illusion that we were a family, she was the mother who loved us all so much that we loved one another, she was the spirit of Christmas. Now we were a group of raging siblings; her death had released us all to be the worst possible versions of ourselves." It's funny and sad and ends with the recipe for Ruthie's Bread and Butter Pudding--her contribution to the annual dinner.

Ephron once chronicled the story of her divorce from journalist Carl Bernstein in a humorous novel. In "The D Word," she revisits that era (and her earlier first divorce), admitting that the break-up was far from funny at the time. The calls divorce the "slice of anger in the pie of your brain"--ah, yes!

She ends the book with lists of "What I Won't Miss" and "What I Will Miss"--fun and a challenge to get rid of the things on our own "won't miss" lists and find room for more of the "will miss" list. Like the lists, I Remember Nothing is a quick and rewarding read.

Favorite passage (in addition to those quoted above):
...every time one of my friend says to me, "Everything happens for a reason," I would like to smack her.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Girl Who Played with Fire, by Stieg Larsson

Last week, Novel Conversations discussed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Since I had read the book a year or so ago and could not bring myself to reread it in preparation for our discussion, I decided to start The Girl Who Played with Fire instead. Unfortunately, by the time we met, I had only read about 200 pages--a mere third of the book and a third in which little of interest happened. Salander, who has been wandering around the world, returns to Stockholm, gets a new apartment, and starts spying on a variety of people. Blomkvist is working with a freelancer on a book on the sex trade. Somehow, Salander and some of the subjects of the inquiry seem to be linked.

Then the freelancer and his girlfriend, who has written her dissertation on the sex trade, are murdered and Salander emerges as the leading suspect. The narrative switches from the police investigation, to Blomkvist's research, to Salander herself, to her former employer's efforts to learn more about the case. Slowly, ever so slowly, the truth emerges. I had to force myself to finish the book and, although the truth of the case is revealed, the ending is clearly a set-up for the third book in the trilogy--but at least this time there aren't 75 pages on a subplot after the main plot wraps up.

I recognize that my boredom with this series puts me in the minority of readers. Most of the members of our book group gave The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo high marks, and several said they liked the second book even better. They found Salander to be an interesting character and thought that Larsson conveyed a sense of place particularly well. The violence against women disturbed some, but others found the intricate plotting to be a plus. For me, none of the pluses raise this book above mediocrity.

Favorite passage:
That's the crux of almost every fight, the moment when the strength drains out of you and the adrenaline pumps so hard that it becomes a burden and surrender appears like a ghost at ringside.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Innocent, by Scott Turow

Like Terry McMillan in Getting to Happy, Scott Turow returns to characters he first wrote about 20 years ago in Innocent--Rusty Sabich, his bipolar wife Barbara, their son Nat, and prosecutor Tommy Molto. When we last heard from these characters, Rusty had discovered that his wife had committed the murder he had been accused of and Molto had been disgraced for mishandling Rusty's trial.

As Innocent opens, we learn that Rusty, who is now an appeals judge, and Barbara, who is still crazy, remain married. Really? An attorney/judge stays with a woman who not only murdered his former girlfriend but framed him for the crime? It strains credulity, as does the fact that Rusty doesn't call anyone for 24 hours when he finds Barbara dead in their bed one morning. Even without a history with Rusty, we have why wouldn't Tommy Molto? (And I haven't even mentioned the unlikely scenario involving Nat falling in love with Rusty's former law clerk and lover, Anna.)

Turow writes courtroom scenes as well as anyone, and Rusty's second trial for murder--told mostly from Nat's perspective--makes good reading for a fan of legal thrillers. Overall, however, revisiting the story of a mentally ill but crafty wife and prosecutors with an ax to grind is hardly fresh.

Reading these two "sequels" in close succession causes me to wonder why authors decide to revisit characters after 20 years. While Turow and McMillan are not the most serious of authors, they aren't series authors who make a living leading the same cast of characters through a series of adventures. I expect more from them. Perhaps I was overly influenced by the TA in a freshman English class at the U of I back in 1969--"Don't ask what happens next," he used to say. "Nothing happens next. They're characters in a book. When the book is done, they cease to exist. Focus on what is in the book." Unless the second book has something important or at least interesting to say, reviving characters from a much earlier book actually seems, to me, to cheapen the first book.

Favorite passage: None

Friday, November 19, 2010

I'd Know You Anywhere, by Laura Lippman

I'd Know You Anywhere, one of Laura Lippman's stand-alone novels (she also writes the Tess Monaghan mystery series), is a psychological thriller that finds its tension in the interplay between a woman and the man who kidnapped and raped her 20 years earlier.

Eliza Benedict and her family have just moved to the DC suburbs after six years in London when she receives a letter from Walter Bowman, the man who kidnapped her, held her captive for 40 days, and raped her when she was a 15-year-old known as Elizabeth Lerner. Bowman, who is soon to be executed for a murder that occurred while he was holding Elizabeth, wants to talk to Eliza. Understandably, Eliza, who has spent years trying to stay out of the spotlight, is at first resistant. But over time Walter and a rather strange anti-death penalty activist named Barbara LaFortuny wear her down. Believing Walter is going to confess to other unsolved murders, Eliza agrees to meet with him. Meanwhile, Walter has a plan to get Eliza to recant the testimony that helped convict him. As these events progress, Lippman fills in the back story, providing details of Eliza and Walter's early lives and the crime that linked them.

While this book is certainly not the most nerve-wracking thriller I've ever read, it is an interesting look into one criminal's mind and the impact of crime on victims and their families.

Favorite passages:
She imagined her body covered with little Post-its, each one marking a specific area of decline--the creaking knee, the popping hip, the stiffening shoulder. She pictured a suit of Post-its, sharp yellow edges riffling in the breeze, at once stiff and pliant. She would like such a suit, an outfit that would announce her edges to the world.

She was appalled that Iso was one of those popular girls who derived power by excluding others. But, still--was this grounds for suspension? Children needed a little grit in their lives, environments that fell somewhere between velvet-lined egg crates and Lord of the Flies.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Getting to Happy, by Terry McMillan

When Waiting to Exhale was published in the early 1990s, I enjoyed the story of four African-American thirty-somethings who were "casualties of love" (perhaps because, at the time, I was in the process of getting divorced and shared their views on the generally dog-like nature of men--and the book was funny). So I had some hope that Terry McMillan's return to the four friends--Savannah, Bernie, Robin, and Gloria--would be equally resonant with my now 60-year-old self. Unfortunately, I found it more soap operatic than insightful.

Each of the women, now about 50 (the book is set in 2005, apparently so the women can be appalled by and responsive to Hurricane Katrina), has a problem. Savannah, married for 10 years to a contractor, is bored in her marriage and angry that her husband has an apparent porn addiction. Bernie, betrayed by her second husband, pops tranquilizers and sleeping pills. Robin, a single mom with a boring career in insurance, has a shopping addiction. And Gloria's world is shattered when her husband Marvin is an innocent victim of a gang shoot-out.

Not much really happens as the women try to find their way to happiness that is less rooted in men than in self-realization, and their experiences don't add anything new to my understanding of what makes a rewarding life. While McMillan is a competent writer, the fact that the chapters from two of the women's perspective are written in first person and two in third annoyed me (I don't remember whether Waiting to Exhale was written similarly).

Favorite passage: None

Sunday, November 7, 2010

World and Town, by Gish Jen

Hattie Kong is a in her late 60s, living in a small New England town where she has retreated following the death of her husband and best friend (whose sarcastic voice rings in Hattie's head) and her retirement as a public school teacher. She was born in China to a Chinese father and American missionary mother and was sent to her mother's family in Iowa at age 17 because of the danger posed by Mao's revolution. Ever since, she has felt like an outsider, a feeling reinforced by the betrayal of her first love, Carter Hatch, when she was trying to establish herself as a research scientist.

Sad and lonely, Hattie becomes interested in the family of Cambodian refugees who have recently moved in down the hill from her. The family is clearly struggling, and Hattie reaches out to help them, but her help is met with varying degrees of acceptance. At first she is most successful with teenage daughter Sophy (we later learn two other daughters are in foster care in another state), to whom Hattie offers Chinese lessons, cookies, and a dog. But Hattie is not the only one who takes an interest in the girl; Ginny, a member of an evangelical church, targets Sophy and the community cum family that the church offers appeals to the girl, whose own family is struggling. Meanwhile, Ginny has left her husband Everett, who is not taking it well. Sophy's brother is expected of terrorism in the wake of 9/11. And Carter Hatch has moved to Hattie's town.

While my description makes World and Town sound like a soap opera, it's actually much more. Told from the perspectives of Hattie, Sophy, and Everett, the story is an exploration of family and community--of what it means to belong. While Hattie gets more "air time" than the other narrators, all three are rich characters that the reader cares deeply about.

Recently, I seem to be finding a lot of books too long--and this one was no exception. The first 350 pages drew me along, while I felt like I was slogging through the last 30, only to find the ending just a bit too pat.

Despite my misgivings about the ending, I enjoyed the book, the characterizations, and the dark wit with which Jen infuses the story.

Favorite passages:

A call! Will everything involving her child remain an event forever?

In what you are proud of, Lee used to say, you can see in what way you are nuts.

By Nightfall, by Michael Cunningham

Late in By Nightfall, gallery owner Peter Harris and his brother-in-law Mizzy (short for "The Mistake," because he came along nearly 20 years after his three sisters) enter a client's home, described as "a perfect imitation of itself." Peter, the protagonist of Cunningham's new novel, might be similarly labeled. Peter appears to be a happy 44-year-old with an art gallery, a loft in Soho that is a "great space" bought before real estate prices skyrocketed, an accomplished wife Rebecca, a problem daughter, and a large social circle. But unhappiness is Peter's "realm," and the happy facade is just that...a facade.

Peter wants to be deeply moved by the art he sells, but representing artists who produce foul-smelling installations made of glue and horsehair or paintings displayed in brown wrapping paper is not rewarding. Thus, perhaps we should not be surprised when Peter feels himself drawn to Mizzy. Mizzy is an aimless twenty-something with a drug habit, but he also has a "pale, princely beauty." How Peter decides to handle his feelings is somewhat startling, however.

Most of the book takes place in Peter's head--with forays into his childhood in Milwaukee, his brother's death of AIDS in the 1980s, the first time he met Rebecca's family, and other seminal events. In the present, the book takes place over just a few days while Mizzy is staying with the couple. As readers, we come to know Peter well--and, although it's hard to actually like him, I could empathize with his angst about his career, his marriage, his role as a father. Rebecca and Mizzy we know less well, of course, and yet the "surprises" that they spring on Peter at the end of the book seem not exactly predictable, but logical within the way their relationships with Peter are depicted.

As with all Cunningham's novels, there are many literary references--Gatsby and Death in Venice prominent among them--but they are not as central to the book as Mrs. Dalloway was to The Hours or Whitman's work was to Specimen Days. Here visual arts assume a central role; fortunately, you do not need sophisticated knowledge of modern art to understand Peter's ruminations on beauty, creativity, and significance. While the construction of the novel is perhaps not as complex as either of those earlier Cunningham works, the writing is just as beautiful. As a character study and an examination of how a person might be affected by the lack of beauty in his/her life, By Nightfall is successful.

Favorite passages:

Peter has gotten better over the years at dressing as the man who's impersonating the man he actually is. Still, there are days when he can't shake the feeling that he's gotten it wrong. And of course it's grotesque to care about how you look, yet almost impossible not to.

Here is the terrible, cleansing fire. Peter has been too long in mourning, for the people who've disappeared, for the sense of dangerous inspiration his life refuses to provide.

They do, of course, each of them, carry within them a jewel of self, not just the wounds and the hopes but an innerness, what Beethoven might have called the soul, that self-ember we carry, the simple fact of aliveness, all snarled up with dream and memory but other than dream and memory, other than the moment (crossing a street, leaving a bakery); that minor infinitude, the private universe in which you have always been and will always be buzzing along on a skate board or looking or coins in the bottom of your purse or going home with your fussing children. What did Shakespeare say? Our little lives are rounded with a sleep.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Map of True Places, by Brunonia Barry

Zee (short for Hepzibah) Finch is a successful psychotherapist in Boston, preparing to marry a very eligible bachelor she was fixed up with by her mentor, Dr. Liz Mattei. But then a patient commits suicide, shaking Zee badly (the similarities with her mother's suicide many years earlier contribute to her debilitating sense of responsibility for the suicide). She attends the funeral, rationalizing that going to Lynn will also allow her to stop in Salem and check in on her father, who has Parkinson's.

When she arrives in Salem, she finds things a mess. Her father has slipped into a delusion that he is Nathaniel Hawthorne and is selling his former life partner's belongings out the window of his home (which he believes is a "cent-shop"). Zee feels compelled to stay, first until she can convince the erstwhile partner Melville to return and then, when that doesn't work out, until she can make a workable plan for her father. The bulk of the book is the story of her summer in Salem, with a rapidly deteriorating father, sad memories of her mother, a stalker who is the dead patient's former lover, and a variety of other complications.

It is sometimes hard to believe that Zee is a therapist--her insight into her self and others does not appear to be keen. However, late in the story, she recognizes that her mother and patient's greatest similarity was that they lied to her and that "The lies or stories that Maureen and Lilly told were not lies they were telling Zee, they were the mythology they were creating for themselves. When they were no longer able to believe their own fairy tales, they lost all hope." This insight helps her find some peace--but Barry is not going to let her off that easily. There will be a violent climax.

At heart, Barry is a romantic, and she tacks on a prologue that wraps up Zee's story with happy ribbons. For me, it wasn't very believable--perhaps an ending that had Zee more fully unraveling her own mythology might have been just as happy and not so saccharine. Still, the book is an enjoyable weekend read.

Favorite passage:
Zee hated tunnels--the darkness, the damp, the dripping from overhead, where she imagined he weight of water already pushing through the cracks, finding any weak spot and working its way through.

(Exactly how I feel about tunnels!)

Monday, October 18, 2010

As Husbands Go, by Susan Isaacs

In her work, Susan Isaacs has frequently combined humor with mystery. She creates quirky characters, throws in a murder, and puts the quirky characters through a variety of humorous situations en route to solving the murder. Sometimes, the formula works. In As Husbands Go, it doesn't.

Oh, the quirky characters, the murder, and the humorous situations are all there. The main character is Susie B. Anthony Rabinowitz Gersten (even her name is quirky), a Long Island floral designer with four-year-old triplets and a plastic surgeon husband "true by nature." Then husband Jonah is found dead in the apartment of prostitute Dorinda Dillon, and Susie is forced to consider whether she knew her husband at all.

When Dorinda is arrested, Susie is not convinced of her guilt and she sets about investigating the case with the assistance of her grandmother, who has recently become a presence in her life for the first time. (The grandmother is another character with quirks to the max--as is Susie's mother, although mom's quirks are much less interesting that grandma's.) As an example of an event intended to be amusing, Susie assumes her grandmother's identity to interview Dorinda.

For me, the quirks and humorous events didn't mix well with Susie's grief and the challenges she and her children face (the children are remarkably unpresent except when convenient--evidently the twin au pairs do a good job of keeping the kids out of mom's hair) . Perhaps if the murder victim were not so close to the protagonist (if he were, for example, the neighborhood periodontist), the humor would be more effective. As is, however, it feels misplaced. Furthermore, when Susie does figure out the real story behind her husband's murder, the book just fizzles out, with neither humor nor any resolution of the emotional issues she is facing.

Favorite passage:

Life goes on, toots, whether you like the way it goes or not. The best a girl can do is mind her ethics--and eat a nice lunch.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga

The White Tiger is the story of class and conflict in India, told in a long letter from Balram Halwai, a former driver who we learn early on has become an entrepreneur by murdering his former boss, to the Premier of China Wen Jiabao, who is visiting India as Balram is writing. Author Adiga creates a unique voice for Balram, a combination of innocence, wry insight, and anger, and gives him an interesting story to tell.

Balram's story begins in the village of Laxmangarh, where he grows up as the son of a rickshaw-puller and starts his own working career in a tea shop. Through good luck and craftiness, Balram becomes a servant in the home of one of the three wealthy men in the village. Eventually, he works his way "up" to become a driver and moves with one of the sons of the family to Delhi. The son, Ashok, seems to be living in Delhi for the sole purpose of handling the family's bribes to government officials.

Meanwhile, Balram and the other drivers live lives of servitude, squalor, and boredom. On one particularly terrible night, Ashok's drunken wife of puts Balram out of the car and drives off, leaving him stranded. She doubles back to pick him up, but then hits a child in the road. Ashok's family insists that Balram take responsibility for the accident. It is not difficult to see why Balram starts to consider how he might escape from the servant's life.

The book provides one perspective on India--and, despite the book's comic moments, it's a dark vision of a corrupt society marred by class distinctions. The character of Balram is engaging--but every other character is either laughable or despicable or both. Still, I found myself very interested in Balram's tale until about the last 75 pages, when the story seemed to break down.

Would I have given the book the Man Booker Prize for 2008 (which it won)? No. But would I recommend the book to others? Yes, it's worth reading for its take on India, its dark humor, and its winning central character, even if I found the last quarter of the book disappointing.

Favorite passage:
The road was dead--then two cars went by, one behind the other, their headlights making a continuous ripple on the leaves, like you see on the branches of trees that grow by a lake. How many thousands of such beautiful things there must be to see in Delhi. If you were just free to go wherever you wanted, and do whatever you wanted.

At night I lay in my mosquito net, the lightbulb on in my room, and watched the dark roaches crawling on top of the net, their antennae quivering and trembling, like bits of my own nerves: and I lay in bed, too agitated even to reach out and crush them.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Body Work, by Sara Paretsky

Sara Paretsky has written 14 V. I. Warshawski mysteries, but she doesn't crank them out on an annual basis like some creators of series mysteries. The 14 books have been spread out over 28 years--and there was once a five-year gap between Warshawski episodes. Perhaps that helps explain why V.I. remains an interesting character and the mysteries featuring the intrepid Chicago private detective are still entertaining.

In Body Work, the parents of a young veteran who has returned from four tours in Iraq with some major psychological problems hire Vic to prove that their son did not shoot a young woman in the alley behind a club. The woman, Nadia Gauman, regularly came to the club to participate in the performance of the "Body Artist" who sits on a stool, nude, and allows customers in the bar to paint on her as she talks about her art. The unfolding story involves the Ukrainian mob, a civilian contractor with thousands of employees in Iraq, a Latino family in denial about their dead daughter's sexuality, and a host of other characters, including Mr. Contreras, Sal the bartender, Vic's cousin Petra, and the loyal pooches Mitch and Peppy. The mystery is complex and, while perhaps not entirely believable, well-put-together. While Paretsky does have to do a bit of "explaining" at the end, as mystery writers often do, at least it is done in an unusual setting!

Favorite passage:
I was so tired that the bones in my skull felt as though they were separating . . .

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Last Night in Twisted River, by John Irving

I finished reading Last Night in Twisted River while traveling and, not wanting to lug it home, I took it downstairs the next morning to see if anyone else in my group wanted it. "What's it like?" one woman asked. "Very John Irving-ish," I answered--and immediately got two replies: "No thanks, I find him irritating" and "I'll take it--I love him."

While I doubt that Michiko Kakutani probably wouldn't use a phrase like "John Irving-ish," it is descriptive. Last Night in Twisted River has New England settings, a central father-son relationship, oddball characters and plot twists that strain credulity, vaguely incestuous sex, tragic and tragicomic events, multiple bears, wrestling, etc. etc.

The central characters are cook Dominic Baciagulpo and his son Daniel, who will become a famous writer with many career experiences paralleling those of John Irving. The plot is involved (and related in nonlinear fashion) but suffice it to say that the two go on the lam after Daniel accidentally kills a woman who is having sex with his father. As years pass, and the dynamic switches from the father protecting the son to the son protecting the father, Irving explores a number of themes, perhaps most notably how people make a life in a "world of accidents" and how a writer's life experiences inform his work. The latter is especially interesting, since Daniel is irritated by the degree to which people believe his work is autobiographical--yet on the surface (and Irving, after all, provides that surface), the works do appear to be highly autobiographical. And, indeed, a central trope is that Daniel is writing this book as his ninth novel, and the first to appear under his real name.

I enjoyed reading the book and found Dominic, Daniel, and their friend, the wildman Ketchum, to be well-drawn characters. However, the women were less well-realized, and many aspects of the plot were bizarre enough to approach the surreal. I'm sure the latter is part of Irving's exploration of his themes, but for a literalist like me, it detracts from the meaning I can draw from the book. Worth reading if you like a dose of "John Irving-ishness" every so often--but if you haven't already done so, read The World According to Garp and A Widow for One Year first.

Favorite passage:

Since I gave the book away, I can't go back and find passages I liked--sorry!

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver writes political novels; in The Lacuna, she takes up the question of the relationship between politics and art and how two neighboring countries--the United States and Mexico--see the relationship differently. She addresses that issue by looking at one character with ties to both countries at a critical time in history.

The main character of The Lacuna is Harrison Shepherd, who is 12 years old as the book opens in 1929. His Mexican mother has recently left his American civil servant father to follow a Mexican oil man back to her native country. They are living in an area so isolated that no school is available for Harrison and he writes in a journal and practices holding his breath to pass the time. The latter skill comes in handy when he discovers a "lacuna" in the wall that he can swim through at high tide to a lovely jungle grotto. This lacuna becomes the first of several empty spaces or gaps that attract Harrison's attention throughout his life.

After his mother leaves the oil man (to follow another man to Mexico City), Harrison has an unfortunate school experience and is eventually shipped back to his father in Washington, DC. Though it is hard to believe anyone could be a worse parent than Harrison's mother, his father tries, immediately delivering him to a military academy. Harrison makes only one friend (who is also his first real romantic interest) at the academy, and the two boys have various adventures around Washington, including being gassed during the government quashing of the Bonus Army protests.

Soon, Harrison is back in Mexico, expelled from the academy and working first as a plaster mixer and then as a cook for leftist artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. When Lev Trotsky is looking for somewhere to hide from Stalin, the Riveras offer him safe harbor, and Harrison also works for Trotsky, first as a cook and then as a secretary. Despite the best efforts to protect Trotsky, he is first attacked and then murdered--both crimes that Harrison observes and is greatly affected by.

As World War II opens, Kahlo tells Harrison it will be safer for him to return to the United States, and she arranges for him to be in charge of transporting a collection of her paintings to New York for an exhibition. This leads to wartime work protecting American art treasures (he is ineligible for military service because of his homosexuality). He settles in Asheville, North Carolina, where he eventually becomes the best-selling author of two novels set in ancient Mexico. With his history, however, it is inevitable that he will come to the attention of HUAC. The latter part of the book is devoted to the investigation and its effects on Harrison and his devoted secretary Violet Brown. While the outcome seems inevitable, Kingsolver does a good job of detailing how these "investigations" worked.

Kingsolver tells the story through Shepherd's journals, his letters, news articles (real and fake), and archivist notes from Violet Brown, who we learn edited Harrison's journals for publication. Gay Davidson Zielski, a friend of mine who teaches college English, was just remarking on Facebook that contemporary authors seem to have abandoned "straight narration from one point of view" for "narrative tricks." While I agree with her, in this case, the "tricks" mostly work--though fewer news articles and Violet Brown insertions might have pared a few of the book's many pages without sacrificing insight.

For me, the length of the book, the inevitability of the outcome with HUAC, and the unsurprising surprise ending resulted in the last sections fizzling out. But the book's flaws do not negate Kingsolver's accomplishment in exploring the nexus between art, politics, and the artist's life.

Of interest:
A feature in the paperback edition of the book is a brief Kingsolver essay about how important titling books is to her--the title for her is "the key that allows entry into every part of the house." The fact that Harrison's editor always insists on retitling his books is a nice inside joke.

Favorite passages:
Delight appears to be his natural state. Does a man become a revolutionary out of the belief he's entitled to joy rather than submission?

We sat on the ledge looking down on the tourists in the plaza, pitying those little ants because they were not up here, and if they ever meant to be, they would have to pay the price. And there is the full sum of it, senseless ambition reduced to its rudiments. Civilizations are built on that, and a water hole.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Where I Live, by Maxine Kumin

Where I Live is a collection of poems written between 1990-2010, and many of the poems are indeed about Kumin's farm in New Hampshire. But others are about political issues, from the U.S. government's approach to fighting terror, to animal abuse and environmental problems. Still others focus on poets, from Wordsworth and Coleridge to Marianne Moore and Stanley Kunitz. Age and death also emerge as themes.

Whatever she is writing about, Kumin makes the poems accessible to the ordinary reader, a fact I (the average reader) appreciate greatly. Her poems reflect her humor, her love of nature and animals, her connections to people, her grief over her husband's death, and her passion about the world and how we, as people, live in it. The emotions reflected in the poems are wide-ranging. A poem like "The Taste of Apple," about the death of one of Kumin's horses, is terribly sad while "Which One" is one of numerous angry works--in this case Kumin excoriates people who throw away animals.

If you don't normally read poetry, but you love nature and/or animals, this book would be a great place to start the poetic journey!

Favorite passages:
From "Winter's Tale"
. . . life was bleak and sweet and you

made marmalade.

From "Extraordinary Rendition"
. . .
Extraordinary how the sun comes up
with its rendition of daybreak,
staining the sky with indifference.

From "Death, Etc."
. . . We try to live gracefully
and at peace with our imagined deaths but in truth we go for-

stumbling, afraid of the dark,
of the cold, and of the great overwhelming
loneliness of being last.

Shadow Tag, by Louise Erdrich

Although the main characters in Louise Erdrich's new novel, Shadow Tag, are Native Americans, the book bears little resemblance to her earlier novels. In Shadow Tag, her focus is narrow and intense--on one family over a period of just a few months--and the story is relentlessly realistic (i.e., there is none of the magical realism that marks many of her works). The result is a harrowing story of a marriage hurtling toward what the reader knows is going to be a bad ending.

Irene America is the mother of three, a historian unable to finish either of the dissertations she has started, an alcoholic, and the muse for her artist husband Gil. Gil has painted dozens of nudes of Irene, often depicting her in degrading situations that he claims represent the treatment of Native Americans. These paintings have made him a moderate success in the art world, but at home he is abusive; the family dogs must often intervene to stop him from hurting the children or Irene. As the novel opens, Gil is desperate to hold onto his marriage and is reading Irene's diaries (and occasionally following her or enlisting friends to do so) because he is convinced she is having an affair. Irene, desperate to leave the marriage but afraid to do so because Gil has threatened to take the children away from her, has started keeping two journals--one for Gil's consumption and one authentic reflection of her thoughts. Entries from the journals make up part of the novel's text, along with narratives from the perspectives of Gil, Irene, their daughter Riel, and an omniscient narrator (whose identity is revealed at the end of the book).

Through Gil and Irene's individual reflections, as well as the arguments in which they engage, Erdrich discusses art and inspiration, kitsch, the effects of being raised with or without an attachment to native culture, and various other topics. But the core concern is why two people who no longer love each other and by staying together only hurt each other--and their children-- still cannot find a way to disengage. Given Erdrich's personal story, one wonders how much of the terrifying psychological warfare is based on experience. Much of the book is heart-rending, in particular the descriptions of how the children try to cope with the chaos in their home.

There is no point in the novel where the reader believes the ending can be happy--it's only a question of how bad it will be, and it's very bad. Yet I couldn't put the book down and will remember it for a long time.

Favorite passage:
To have meaning, history must consist of both occurrence and narrative. If she never told, if he never told, if the two of them never talked about it, there was no narrative. So the act,though it had occurred, was meaningless. It did not count as infidelity. It did not count at all.

Riel went back into her room and pulled her comforter back over her head. She thought of Mahtotohpa's tragic loyalty and came to a conclusion. In the event of a disaster, she would have to take charge. She would have to find a way to save her family. What she had read convinced her again that anything could happen. All through history, this was proven--the worst imaginable things really did come true.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender

If lemon cake had an emotional content, what do you think it would be? For Rose Edelstein, it is sadness. Lemon cake is the first food that she bit into, at eight years of age, and tasted the emotions of the person who made the cake: her mother, who baked hollowness into the cake. A few years later, a roast beef dinner tells Rose that her mother is having an affair. This special skill makes eating difficult for Rose, who must focus on the more mundane--identifying where the ingredients came from (she can identify eggs down to the county) or the factory in which they were assembled--in order to eat without extreme emotional distress.

But Rose is hardly the only one in her family with a problem. Her father cannot enter hospitals--even when his wife is giving birth or someone he loves is ill. Her grandmother is gradually emptying her house by sending everything to Rose and her family--including broken furniture, half-used packages of food, and other oddities. Rose's mother, as the emptiness and affair mentioned above might suggest, is unhappy and overly focused on Rose's brother Joseph. And Joseph--well, in order not to reveal what would best come as a surprise, let's just say Joseph has serious issues and only one friend. That friend, George, shows Rose kindness and acceptance not available from her family; as a result, she adores him.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is definitely odd--as a reader who struggles with "magical realism," I never know quite what to make of the kinds of things that happen in this book. Yet it held my interest, even at it's strangest moments.

Favorite passage:

My soup arrived. Crusted with cheese, golden at the edges. The waiter placed it carefully in front of me, and I broke through the top layer with my spoon and filled it with warm oniony broth, catching bits of soaked bread. The smell took over the table, a warmingness. And because circumstances rarely match, and one afternoon can be a patchwork of both joy and horror, the taste of the soup washed through me. Warm, kind, focused, whole. It was easily, without question, the best soup I had ever had, made by a chef who found true refuge in cooking. I sank into it.

Holly Blues, by Susan Wittig Albert

One of the adages popular with writing teachers is "show, don't tell." Mystery writers are especially prone to telling, especially when it comes to the denouement--the various plot twists have to be untangled somehow and the easiest way is to have someone explain everything. Unfortunately, the latest title in Susan Wittig Albert's China Bayles series is all about telling. The actual "real-time" story occurs over only a few days and none of the crimes dealt with actually occur in Pecan Springs. Instead, China and her investigator husband Mike McQuaid (who gets a few chapters of his own) find themselves looking at one ten-year-old crime and two others that occurred in other towns. How do they find out about these crimes? Mike goes into a diner and happens upon a cop, who tells him all about one of the crimes, while China gathers stories at a quilt shop near where one of the murders occurred. Talk, talk, talk, tell, tell, tell. Not much of a mystery this time around.

Favorite passage: None

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Abraham Lincoln, by George McGovern

George McGovern was the first person I voted for for President. He did not do well (a penchant for third-party candidates--Eugene McCarthy in 1976 and John Anderson in 1980--and another bad year for democrats in 1984 meant I was more than 20 years into my voting career before I voted for anyone who carried more than one state).

Nonetheless, I was reminded of some of the reasons I admired Senator McGovern when I heard him speak at the Illinois state law-related education conference last fall. Despite being well into his eighties, he is still working tirelessly to make the world a better place--and he's doing it in collaboration with an old colleague and rival, Senator Bob Dole. The two are working on a project to make a free school lunch available to every child in the world. Despite serving in the wartime military, suffering political defeats, and losing a child to alcoholism, he is an optimist who still believes in democracy and people's capacity to rise to its demands. And he's a scholar--holding a PhD in history and government from Northwestern.

All these traits--plus his enduring admiration for Abraham Lincoln--make him a natural choice to write the bio of Lincoln for "The American Presidents" series. The volume is slim, but reminds us of the magnitude of Lincoln's achievements (though McGovern does, with apparent pain, take Lincoln to task for his suspension of constitutional rights during the Civil War). Having spent some time last year examining primary source documents in preparing teaching tools for a collection of Lincolniana at the Library of Congress and writing a lesson on Lincoln to mark the bicentennial of his birth, I still got new insight into Lincoln's leadership by reading McGovern's synthesis of his presidency. For young people especially, this title would provide an excellent introduction to one of our greatest presidents.

Favorite passage:
In Lincoln we see the essence of leadership. He inspired a people and an army by steady, measured resolve. He mobilized and energized the nation by appealing to the best and highest of ideals; that is, he convinced the nation that "a more perfect Union"--a Union of justice and freedom--was worth fighting for.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman

My son the budding literary scholar recently mentioned that he had checked out my blog a time or two and noted that I seem to be more engaged with character than plot. That interest in character means I like The Imperfectionists, which doesn't have much of a plot, a lot. Each chapter is devoted to one character--all in some way related to "the paper"--a failing English-language international paper published in Rome. Between the chapters are brief accounts of the paper's history, from its founding by a wealthy industrialist in the 1950s to its demise under his completely disinterested grandson's leadership.

The first character we meet is over-the-hill Paris correspondent Lloyd Burko (who, we later learn, was once a star reporter), looking for a story to raise money for the rent. His latest wife is living with her lover across the hall, and the children from his several previous marriages have little to do with him. Nonetheless, he tries to wangle a story from his son, who supposedly works at the French foreign ministry. His son hints at a development in Gaza, and Lloyd turns the hint into a story (without benefit of actual reportage). When the paper rejects the story as the fiction it is, Lloyd confronts his son, with an unexpected outcome.

Rachman renders the other characters--obituary writer and son of a famous novelist Arthur Gopal, business writer Hardy Benjamin, editor-in-chief Kathleen Solson, reader Ornella de Monterecchi, and others--with an equal lack of pretense or pity, but with telling details and dialogue. While some reviewers have noted that Rachman paints the world of the newsroom affectionately (he worked as a journalist with the International Herald Tribune), he portrays the staff as complicit, if not completely responsible, for the paper's fate (which seems clear early on).

My favorite character (probably the favorite character of anyone who has tried to teach others about grammar) is corrections editor Herman Cohen. Herman scans the paper for problems and then rips off additions to "The Bible," the voluminous style guide he expects editors to follow. (See the favorite passage below for a sample.) Despite his stern approach to the staff, Herman has a soft spot for his prep school roommate Jimmy, a man of no apparent talent who Herman nonetheless believes is destined to be a great writer. His disillusionment is both funny and sad, as are the situations in which Rachman puts many of the characters--and the paper itself.

Highly recommended!

Favorite passage:
GWOT: No one knows what this means, above all those who use the term. Nominally, it stands for Global War on Terror. But since conflict against an abstraction is, to be polite, tough to execute, the term should be understood as marketing gibberish. Our reporters adore this sort of humbug; it is the copy editor's job to exclude it. See also: OBL; Acronyms; and Nitwits.

Monday, August 23, 2010

What Is Novel Conversations Reading

Here's the Novel Conversations reading list for the next several months:

September: Digging to America, by Anne Tyler
October: Little Bee, by Chris Cleave
November: Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver
December: Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larrson
January: Half-Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The One That I Want, by Allison Winn Scotch

I had read a couple of positive reviews of The One That I Want and thought it sounded like a good, light read. It's light for sure, but I found it silly and predictable. Tilly Farmer is a 32-year-old guidance counselor, married to her high school sweetheart, and living in her home town; as the book opens, she is obsessed with planning the school musical and the prom--but her husband is falling asleep in front of the TV every night, her alcoholic father has started drinking again, and her youngest sister is angry with everyone except their dead mother. Obviously, all is not well, and it doesn't take a series of hokey visions that Tilly experiences after talking to a fortune teller at the fair to see trouble ahead.

As Scotch develops the story, Tilly uncovers family secrets, has some insights into the reasons for her risk-averse and controlling behavior, and begins to build a new life, with a new man (because an interesting new man is always waiting down the hall at work) and a return to a childhood interest (photography--as if turning that into a career is easy). The story is both too pat and too weird (the visions) to be believable or affecting.

Favorite passage: None

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Cookbook Collector, by Allegra Goodman

The Cookbook Collector is a story of pairs--two sisters, philosophy graduate student Jess and high-tech executive Emily; two high-tech companies about to go public, Emily's Veritech in Silicon Valley and her fiance Jonathan's ISIS in Cambridge; two economies, during and after the bubble; two Bialystok rabbis and their wives; Jess's two lovers; the two women who love Jonathan's old friend and programming genius Orion. Many of the pairs represent dichotomies, choices about different ways of living in the world.

Emily seems to be the ultimate pragmatist. She went to MIT, started her own company, and has put off marrying Jonathan to tend to her business. Jess, on the other hand, studies philosophy, works part-time at a rare book store, and lives with an environmentalist in a communal dwelling known as the Tree House. Yet Jess finds herself drawn to the owner of the bookstore where she works, George, who surrounds himself with things rather than people. And Emily prevents her company from developing a surveillance tool she feels is unethical; Jonathan, on the other hand, is prepared to steal and develop the idea Emily shared in confidence. Perhaps it is not surprising that Jess and George find themselves drawn together (with the cookbook collection of the title playing an important role) while Emily and Jonathan end up apart, though not solely for the reason one might expect.

Other characters swirl around the narrative as well. Some of these characters (e.g., Orion and his two women) add to the story's depth, while others (e.g., ISIS human resources director Mel and his wife Barbara) seem only to add clutter. Goodman weaves 9/11 into the narrative, but not in a way that helps us understand the causes or true effects of that tragedy. Similarly, the discovery the sisters make about their long-dead mother's background, while accompanied with much emotional turmoil, seems like a bizarre and not especially meaningful coincidence.

Goodman does provide some insight into how the young companies that fueled the bubble of the late 90s operated, though her treatment of the effects of the bubble's bursting seems to underestimate the pain experienced by those who didn't cash in their stock in time. And, in Jess, she has created an engaging and believable character who can carry the novel to its happy conclusion.

Favorite passages:
The markets swooned. Like a beautiful diver, the Nasdaq bounced three times into the air and flipped, somersaulting on the way down. Tech stocks once priced at two hundred, and then seventy-three, and then twenty-one, now sold for less than two dollars a share. Companies valued in the billions were worth just millions, and with a blood rush, investors thought, So this is gravity, this is free fall.

An intense tang, the underside of velvet. Then flesh dissolved in a rush of nectar. Juice drenched her hand and wet the inside of her wrist. She had forgotten, if she'd ever known, that what was sweet could also be so complicated, that fruit could have a nap, like fabric, soft one way, sleek the other. She licked the juice dripping down her arm.

The house was quiet. Their friends had gone. The scent of roses, wedding music, and laughter faded away. The hammock swayed under them, and George and Jess floated together, although nothing lasted. They held each other, although nothing stayed.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Here if You Need Me, by Kate Braestrup

Kate Braestrup was a writer and mother of four when her husband, a Maine state trooper with a calling to become a minister, was killed in a car accident. Here if You Need Me is a collection of vignettes or essays that she wrote after he died. Some of the piece are about mourning for her husband and raising her children in the months and years that followed. Braestrup seems both unusually brave and aware—she washed and dressed her husband’s body and accompanied him to the crematory—and typically unable to get out of bed some days. One of the decisions that helped her keep getting out of bed was deciding to take on her husband’s dream of becoming a minister; her time in the seminary is the focus of a few vignettes. The largest number of the essays are, however, focused on her new career as chaplain to the Maine Game Warden Service. Many of these stories deal with how Braestrup and her colleagues cope with the work of searching for missing people and dealing with the varying outcomes of those searches. While these stories are often very sad, there is something about Braestrup’s humor, attitude of love (which in many ways seems to be her religion), and calm that renders reading the book a joyous experience. Even her author photo gives one a sense of radiant calm.

For a logical-sequential like me, my inability to understand the order in which Braestrup placed the essays was somewhat frustrating (why not a nice chronological order?), but didn’t detract from the overall effect of the book. Despite not being religious, I found the book a peaceful read.

Favorite passage:

For three days following Christina’s murder, Detective Sergeant Love worked pretty much around the clock. In between all the meetings, the phone calls, the inspections of the scene and new pieces of physical evidence, the interviews with witnesses and family members, the interrogation of the suspect, and in between attending to the manifold legal requirements for proper documentation of all of the above, Anna would periodically duck into her office with her breast pump. Bottles of her milk would be sent home where her husband waited with their baby.

If ours were a sensible culture, little girls would play with Anna Love action figures, badge in one hand, breast pump in the other.

True love demands that. Like a bride with her bouquet, you toss your fragile glass heart into the waiting crowd of living hands and trust that they will catch it.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

That Old Cape Magic, by Richard Russo

Somebody in my old Boulder book group loves Richard Russo--this is the third of his books they have read in the past three years. Unfortunately for me, the first Russo book I ever read was Empire Falls, which set my expectations for the author extremely high. To date, none of his other works have lived up to that standard.

That Old Cape Magic is the story of one year in the life of John Griffin, a screenwriter turned college professor. Griffin seems predisposed to unhappiness, and the year is marked by unhappy events--a separation from his wife and the death of his mother. Griffin's reflections include his analysis of his marriage to Joy, whose name suggests her more positive perspective on life, and his upbringing with two college professor parents, stuck in the "mid-fucking-West" when they yearned to be in the more rarefied air of the Northeast. Habitually unfaithful to each other and seemingly uninterested in their child, the two only approach happiness on Cape Cod, singing "That Old Cape Magic" (to the tune of "That Old Black Magic") as they cross the bridge to the Cape. One summer's experience with a family who welcomed Griffin into their days serves not only as a touchstone for Griffin's view of his parents but the inspiration for a piece of writing he has worked on for years. While he claims to be nothing like his parents, Griffin's similarities to them are obvious.

Parts of the book feature Russo's trademark humor: the scene at the rehearsal dinner before the wedding of Joy and Griffin's daughter is very funny. Russo also has a gift for laying out the thoughts bouncing around in one person's head--we truly come to know Griffin through his internal dialogue; how accurate his memories of the past are is unclear--but their effect on how he lives his life is clear. The story would have been more interesting and the ending more believable (perhaps) if Russo had also taken us into Joy's head.

That Old Cape Magic is enjoyable and offers an opportunity to reflect on how your perception of your parents and their relationship influence you and your relationships. But ultimately the novel lacks the depth Empire Falls proved this author is capable of.

Favorite passage:
Late middle age, he was coming to understand, was a time of life when everything was predictable and yet somehow you failed to see any of it coming.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism, by Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin is an extraordinary person. A person with autism, she has obtained a doctorate (from the University of Illinois--oskee-wow-wow!), is a leader in the field of designing humane facilities for handling of animals (including slaughterhouses), has written several books, and is a professor at Colorado State University who lectures widely on both autism and Thinking in Pictures is part memoir, part explication of autism, complete with tips for those educating or raising autistic children. For a reader who is not autistic, does not have an autistic child, and does not work with autistic children, the portions of the book about Grandin's own life are by far the most compelling.

Grandin's description of how her mind works is fascinating--she thinks in pictures and regards words as "a second language." Her mind operates something like a computer--scanning through visual files to find the images relevant to a particular situation or problem. While it took her many years to realize fully how different her mind was from other people's, she does a good job of conveying that difference to those of us who are word-bound. She also provides insight into other ways that autism has affected her and to the possible similarities between the brains of animals and people, especially people with autism. I found the sections in which she reviews autism-related research and treatment less interesting, though they might be very useful to others: she is also a bit quick to label various contemporary and historic figures as autistic.

As a reader, I hate to say this, but--despite some highlights in the book--I think the HBO film about her early life (titled Temple Grandin) is better than Thinking in Pictures. Given Grandin's visual proclivity, I wonder if she would agree.

Favorite passage:
To destroy other people's culture is to rob them of their immortality.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Ordinary Heroes, by Scott Turow

When we nominated books for future Novel Conversations reading, my friend Kendall proposed a moratorium on World War II books. I agreed--and then somehow I picked up Scott Turow's Ordinary Heroes. I obviously had looked too closely at the book, as I expected the usual Turow legal thriller. While the story has legal aspects--the main character, David Dubin, is a JAG attorney-- it's primarily a novel about World War II.

Turow uses a story within a story device. Stewart Dubinsky, a recently divorced journalist who retired to write a book, is stunned when he discovers, while going through his recently deceased father's papers, had been court-martialled during World War II and had jilted his fiancee. Stewart's mother will tell him nothing about his father's history, so he decides to use his journalistic skills to uncover his father's past. The bulk of the book is devoted to what he learns, with much less time devoted to how the knowledge of his father's war-time activities affected Stewart.

Although I plugged my way through the entire book, reading about battles and military strategy is not my thing. The twists the story takes are interesting, as are the changes in David's thinking as he experiences war first-hand, but the pluses are not enough to make me recommend this book to anyone who is not a WWII buff.

Favorite passage:
"Your father," she said, stopping to pick a speck of sugar off her tongue and to reconsider her words. Then, she granted the only acknowledgment she ever has of what I faced with him. "Stewart," she said, "your father sometimes had a difficult relationship with himself."

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

I was prepared to hate this book--I'm usually irritated when white storytellers (whether in book or film) appropriate African-American stories. But friends kept telling me how much they enjoyed the book, and Novel Conversations chose it as our August book. So, I picked up The Help and surprise, surprise....I enjoyed it.

Stockett creates three memorable characters whose experiences in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi, provide a window into the lives of black domestic workers and young white women who want to be more than hypocritical Junior League do-gooders. First we meet Aibileen, an African-American woman who has raised 17 white babies (her only child died in a tragic workplace accident not too long before the book begins), trying to inoculate them against racism and the pain of being ignored by their mothers. Her current child is Mae Mobley, a sweet little girl whose mother Elizabeth actually seems to hate her.

Elizabeth is friendly with the book's second major character, Skeeter--a recent college graduate who wants to be a writer but can only find a job answering housekeeping questions for the local newspaper. Since as a white woman whose mother has always had "help," she has no idea how to solve the dilemmas posed, she turns to Aibileen for help. Eventually, they come up with the idea of publishing a book of interviews with African-American maids in which they tell what it is like to work for white women, raising their children, feeding their families, and living with their intentional and unintentional cruelties as well as the genuine affection in some relationships.

The first woman they recruit for the project is Minny, who has been fired numerous times because she simply can't stop herself from speaking out. She has been fired by Hilly, another friend of Elizabeth and Skeeter. She finally finds a job (via some subterfuge by Aibileen) with Celia, a somewhat trashy woman who married Hilly's former boyfriend. Meanwhile, Minny has five children and an abusive husband with whom she must cope on the home front.

The three women know that their project could have serious negative consequences for them and the other women they recruit to take part--the murder of Medgar Evers and the March on Washington take place while they are conducting interviews. But they press on. When the book is published, there is immediate speculation that it is about Jackson, and some people recognize themselves in stories--good and bad.

The book has some weaknesses--there are a lot of different plot lines and some of them become a bit soapy and predictable. Skeeter's two friends, Elizabeth and Hilly (who, of course, are lost as friends before the book ends), seem to have no redeeming characteristics. Stockett does a better job with Skeeter's mother, who has both glaring weaknesses and endearing qualities. Also, I still have some qualms about a white author writing dialect. Overall, however, The Help is an interesting exploration of its time and place, and the scenes in which Aibileen tries to prepare Mae Mobley to be different kind of Southern white woman are very moving.

Favorite passage:
I look deep into her rich brown eyes and she look into mine. Law, she got old-soul eyes, like she done lived a thousand years. And I swear I see, down inside, the woman she gone grow up to be. A flash from the future. She is tall and straight. She is proud. She got a better haircut. And she is remembering the words I put in her head. Remembering as a full-grown woman.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Every Last One, by Anna Quindlen

A few weeks ago, I was on a roll with a series of books I really enjoyed. Now I'm on a bit of a reverse roll--Every Last One is the third book in a row that I haven't cared for (and I may tell more in this review than you want to know if you plan to read the book).

Anna Quindlen is an excellent writer, and her nonfiction writing shows her to be an empathetic and intelligent woman. With the exception of One True Thing, which was based in part on events in her own life, I don't find her novels to have the depth I would expect from her.

Every Last One begins slowly, probably intentionally so. Quindlen is painting a picture of an "average" family with typical problems. There are some cracks in the marriage of Mary Beth and Glenn, but those cracks don't seem to threaten the future of their marriage. Their three teenagers have given them some problems--Ruby is a recovering anorexic who has just broken up with her long-time boyfriend (who isn't taking it well) and wants her parents to butt out of her personal life, and 14-year-old Max is a depressed nerd who apparently has no friends (not even his twin Alex, who is immersed in sports). Midway through the book, a terrible act of violence occurs, and the rest of the book tells how the surviving family members cope. Quindlen does a competent job describing the grieving process and the interactions of people who are grieving, both with their loved ones and other friends--I even cried once or twice. While this part of the book is much more interesting than the first half, I didn't feel she provided any new insights to a topic that has been covered many times before.

In all fairness, I have to admit that I haven't found any of the post-Columbine novels that deal with mass violence by teenagers particularly rewarding. I didn't care for either Jodi Picoult's Nineteen Minutes or Wally Lamb's The Hour I First Believed (which uses the actual Columbine killings as a plot device). I couldn't make it through Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin (maybe I should try again). I know there are a number of recent YA titles that deal with teen violence; I haven't read any of these and may check out a couple to see how they deal with the topic. It may be that Quindlen has written a very insightful book about teen violence and grief and I am not personally ready for novels on this topic (although I have read several of the post-9/11 novels and found them to offer some new ways of thinking about that event). Nonetheless, I don't recommend this book.

Favorite passage:
I have a half-dozen clients now who hire me to decorate their trees; I have one who has three trees, one in the two-story living room, one in the wood-paneled den, one in the cavernous kitchen. I went into this business [landscaping] because I loved the slow and gradual nature of it, the undeniable logic of the natural world. Now much of what I do is simply show, an attempt to present a gaudy mask to others. There is nothing more joyless than decorating the Christmas tree of someone you barely know.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Sizzling Sixteen, by Janet Evanovich

Here I am again, complaining about a mystery series gone bad. The Stephanie Plum novels used to be fun--full of quirky characters in Stephanie's family, at her job as a bounty hunter, and generally scattered around Trenton, New jersey, where she lives. Now, the characters have become tedious and predictable, highlighting the ridiculous plots. Even the "sexual tension" between Stephanie and her two men--Ranger and Morelli--has lost its zip. Sizzling Sixteen isn't worth another sentence.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Last Time I Saw You, by Elizabeth Berg

Elizabeth Berg's early novels often moved me--Range of Motion, Talk Before Sleep, and What We Keep made Berg one of my favorites 10 years ago. Her recent books, however, have been disappointing, and The Last Time I Saw You unfortunately falls into the disappointing category.

In this, her most recent novel, Berg uses the tired device of the class reunion to introduce us to a cast of characters in their late 50s. I thought this might be interesting, at least in part because I am the same age (well, actually, I'm now 60, but who's counting?) and have recently experienced something of a virtual high school reunion on Facebook. But Berg's characters are stereotypes--the nerd who is now a successful veterinarian, the semi-popular girl who longs for one night with the quarterback, that very quarterback, who refuses to miss the reunion despite being in the hospital recovering from a heart attack. While it is possible to believe people change after high school, these characters stay essentially the same for 40 years--and then undergo a metamorphosis at the reunion. That seems as unlikely as the series of happy endings Berg jams into the final chapter.

Someday, I hope to be reunited with the Elizabeth Berg who wrote those early novels. I miss her.

Favorite passage:
She may have gray hair and a few brown spots and her memory may not be quite as excellent as it once was, but the taste of a good vanilla ice cream cone or the sound of church bells on a Sunday morning or the sight of a red sky still thrills her. And in those moments of appreciation she, like all people, becomes ageless.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Scent of Rain and Lightning, by Nancy Pickard

Nancy Pickard is a veteran of the mystery-writing game. She produced the long-running Jenny Cain series, took over the Eugenia Potter culinary mystery series when the original author died, and launched the new Marie Lightfoot series with an interesting format. The Scent of Rain and Lightning is Pickard's second stand-alone thriller set in her home state of Kansas--and she captures the place beautifully.

The story centers around the Linder family, whose oldest son Hugh-Jay was murdered 23 years ago; his wife Laurie disappeared on the same night, leaving their daughter Jody effectively an orphan. The town ne'er-do-well was convicted of the murder and has been in prison ever since. As the book opens, his sentence has been commuted because of flaws in the original trial; Pickard goes in and out between narratives of the time of the murder and the present. Through both, it rather quickly becomes clear that someone else is the perpetrator and the book winds its way to a resolution.

There's something about the book that doesn't quite work--the surprises in the story don't work, the murders near the end of the book seem gratuitous, the characters don't quite ring true, and the happy ending feels false. Yet I didn't hate the book--I just didn't find it up to Pickard's usual standard.

Favorite passage:
Hugh Senior patted his middle son on his back and wondered if any of them were ever going to be able to be happy again in this life where even the most simple tasks were now so hard to do.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Pray for Silence, by Linda Castillo

Pray for Silence is the second in a new mystery series featuring Kate Burkholder, Chief of Police in Painters Mill, Ohio. Painters Mill sits near a large Amish community, and an Amish family of seven, the Planks, is found dead in the book's first chapter. The fact that the family's two teenage girls were tortured, while the other family members were shot, suggests there may be a sexual element to the crime. When daughter Mary's diary is found, it seems likely that her secret life may be the key to the mystery. Suspects abound, from a variety of local losers to young men-about-town and the Planks' gay son Aaron, who was excommunicated by the Amish.

Kate feels a connection with both Mary and Aaron, as she was the victim of sexual violence as an Amish teenager and was excommunicated when she chose not to stay in the faith. She experiences a great deal of angst as the case unfolds, sometimes finding release in violence. Adding to the overall dysfunction quotient is her lover, state agent John Tomasetti, who is still recovering from the trauma of losing his wife and children to violence two years earlier.

Pray for Silence is not a bad escapist read--especially since Kate is a new enough character for me to still be interested (though I can't help wondering what other trauma from her youth we will learn about in the next book in the series, since the story we learned in Sworn to Silence is amplified with more pain in this title). At times, the fact that the police are making mistakes is terribly obvious--the crime cannot have been solved when it seems like it has been because there are both too many unexplained clues and too many pages left in the book but the fast pace kept me reading anyway.

Favorite passage:
There is an underground society that runs beneath the Norman Rockwell facade of most small towns . . .

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa

The housekeeper of this book's title is a never-married Japanese mother of a ten-year-old boy. She has just been assigned a new client and learns that she will be the tenth housekeeper the agency has sent to assist the professor, a brilliant mathematician. The previous women have, we assume, been unable to cope with the fact that, due to brain injury suffered in a car accident, the professor has only 80 minutes of short-term memory (or perhaps they are troubled by the moldy shoes he wears or the small notes pinned all over his clothing in an attempt to deal with the problems that having no short-term memory causes).

This housekeeper enjoys her work with the professor and is drawn into his love for numbers. The professor can find something interesting about any number or pair of numbers. For example, when they meet for the first time, `he asks her shoe size. When she tells him twenty-four centimeters, he replies "There's a sturdy number. It's the factorial of four." Her phone number, it turns out, is the total number of the primes between one and one hundred million. Soon, the housekeeper is visiting the library in a quest to understand more of the equations and concepts the professor has laid before her.

When the professor learns that the housekeeper has a son, he insists the son come to the professor's house after school. He and the son have a spontaneous affection cemented by their love of baseball, a treasure trove of numbers for those enamored with the mathematical. The housekeeper and her son (nicknamed Root because his head is as flat as the square root symbol) determine to take the professor to a baseball game, all the while hiding from him the fact that his favorite player has long since retired.

Even though the professor cannot remember the housekeeper and her son from day to day, a lovely familial feeling develops among the three, prompting the reader to reflect on the relationship between memory and love (not to mention the connections between mathematics and everything). I likely will not remember the math in the book more than 80 hours (in truth, 80 minutes is probably closer to the truth), but I'll remember the quiet beauty of both the story and the writing much longer.

Favorite passage:
Cheers and static drowned out the voice of the announcer. The smell of baking bread filled the room as we pictured the trail left by the pitcher's cleats on his walk out to the mound.

Of interest:
This book was recommended by Trish, a member of the Broomfield, UK, book group that Novel Conversations is twinning with. It was translated by Stephen Snyder, former University of Colorado faculty member.

Sarah's Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay

Vel' d'Hiv'--this unfamiliar (to me) phrase is at the center of Sarah's Key. It refers to the July 1942 round-up of Parisian Jews (including many children) by French police; the Jews were detained in horrific conditions at a Velodrome (an arena where bicycle races were held), before being sent to camps outside Paris and eventually to Auchswitz, where they were killed. The event reveals the Vichy government's degree of complicity with the Nazis; like other "untaught" events in history, Vel' d'Hiv' is something more people should know about.

In the first half of her book, Tatiana de Rosnay informs us about Vel' d'Hiv' through alternating narratives. We see the event through the eyes of Sarah, a young Jewish girl who experienced it directly. She, her mother, and her father are taken by the police, but her younger brother hides in a cupboard in their apartment. We also watch as Julia Jarmond, an American journalist who has lived in France for 25 years, investigates Vel' d'Hiv' for a story to mark the 60th anniversary of the tragedy. She discovers that many French people know little or nothing about the events--and do not want to know or talk about it. She also learns that her husband's family has an unexpected relationship to Vel' d'Hiv'. Her fascination with the subject and her attempts to probe ever-deeper into the event add stress to an already flawed marriage. When she unexpectedly becomes pregnant at 45, the marriage reaches a precipice.

Midway through the book, there is a climactic moment; after that point, the book is told entirely from Julia's perspective, although we continue to learn more about Sarah as Julia's research unfolds. I felt the loss of Sarah's voice keenly--once the chapters from her perspective disappeared, the book was less interesting. The writing itself is competent though not transporting, and I could have done without the pregnancy subplot. Nonetheless, Sarah's Key is well worth reading (I finished it in a day, albeit a day that included a plane trip), and I look forward to our Novel Conversations discussion.

Favorite passage:
My grandmother was fifteen at the time of the roundup. She was told she was free because they were only taking small children between two and twelve with their parents. She was left behind. And they took all the others. Her little brothers, her little sister, her mother and father, her aunt, her uncle. Her grandparents. It was the last time she ever saw them. No one came back. No one at all.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

I almost quit reading A Visit from the Goon Squad 100 pages in. But I knew there was a section near the end of the book that was written as a PowerPoint, and I wanted to get to it. I'm glad I persevered, as the last third of the book is strangely interesting.

Why did I almost give up? The book follows a large cast of characters, all connected loosely or tightly to others in the cast and most involved to some extent in the music business. Every chapter is told from the perspective of one of these characters (some in first person, some in third). Some show up for one chapter and disappear; others, like music producer Benny Salazar and his kleptomaniac assistant Sasha, reappear frequently. I found it hard to engage with many of the characters. Take, for example, La Doll (or Dolly), a top New York publicist. In one chapter, she is the bitchy boss of Benny's ex-wife Stephanie; later, she reemerges in her "own" chapter. She's lost everything because a ballroom full of celebrities were burned by hot oil cascading from decorations she designed for an "it" party. To revive her career, she takes on the image-rehabbing of a foreign dictator who has engaged in genocide. His rehabbing involves wearing an odd hat and pretending to have an American girlfriend, a washed-up 28-year-old actress who just happens ten years previously to have been attacked by Stephanie's journalist brother Jules. You see how this connection thing works, right? Adding to my lack of engagement with the book was that fact that the chapters seemed to be randomly arranged, both in terms of time and character development (I'm sure that's not true--but I was incapable of discerning the reasoning behind their order).

After I decided to keep reading, two chapters in the middle of the book caught my attention because their format differed. One was presented as an article by Jules describing the incident with the actress. The other, focused on a college friend of Sasha's, was written in second person.

Then, the final two chapters really rewarded my decision. First, both of them are set in a rather dystopic future where music, family life, and the environment have all taken hits. One chapter is the PowerPoint journal of Sasha's daughter, who spends a lot of time writing about her mildly autistic brother's obsession with the pauses in songs. It sounds goofy, but it's actually a tour de force, a demonstration of how a talented writer can turn a form designed for another purpose into a narrative tool. The last chapter features Alex, who was on a date with Sasha in the book's first chapter. Many years later, he is a married father hoping that Benny Salazar will give him a job. The chapter's events reveal Egan's view of a possible future for families, communication, and music.

So I'm glad I kept reading. The book's probably not going to be on my Top Ten list for 2010, but Egan's ability to ply her skills and imagination in such varied ways makes it worth the effort.

Favorite passages:
I loved the PowerPoint chapter, but it doesn't really reproduce well as quotations, so I'll go with something from the last chapter:

Rebecca was an academic star. Her new book was on the phenomenon of word casings, a term she'd invented for words that no longer had meaning outside quotation marks. English was full of these empty words--"friend" and "real" and "story" and "change"--words that had been shucked of their meanings and reduced to husks. Some, like "identity," "search," and "cloud," had clearly been drained of life by their Web usage. With others, the reasons were more complex; how had "American" become an ironic term? How had "democracy" come to be used in an arch, mocking way?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Who Are You People? by Shari Caudron

In Who Are You People?, subtitled A Personal Journey into the Heart of Fanatical Passion in America, Shari Caudron sets out to understand her own lack of a "singular, all-consuming interest" by learning about people who are fanatical about something. Over the course of a three-year period of reporting, Caudron hung out with Barbie collectors, ice fishermen, pigeon racers, players of testosterone-infused board games, The Andy Griffith Show Rerun Watchers Club, Grobanites (fans of singer Josh Groban), sci-fi aficionados, furries, collectors of pop culture artifacts, and storm chasers. In every case, she found something to admire about the passionate fans.

Reading about Caudron's adventures with the various groups is sometimes touching, occasionally enlightening, and nearly always hilarious; since she makes as much fun of herself as she does the people she encounters, the humor is generally good-spirited. While she also consulted social scientists, pollsters, genetics research and the founder of in an effort to learn more about passion and where and how it originates, the encounters with the various forms of fanatics are the most interesting pieces of the book.

Caudron identifies the types of subcultures she studied as "one of the few places in American society where people are allowed to be comfortably different." While she did not discover a personal passion during her journey, she did reconnect with her ten-year-old self, the "age when we're allowed to be fully absorbed in something totally meaningless. . . . it's the age before the twin social pressures of restraint and conformity take over and squeeze the silliness out of us."

As a person who, when advised to "follow your bliss," has always wondered "what bliss?" I thoroughly enjoyed Caudron's examination of people following their bliss in directions I couldn't have imagined without her help.

Favorite passage (not so much a favorite as an exemplar of what kept me chuckling):
If seven ferret lovers were able to find each other in a metropolitan area with more than three million people, who else might be joining together in pursuit of shared interests. I checked Meetup's lists of topics and learned there were more than twenty-three hundred specific interests posted. There were scheduled meetings for people who loved aviation, beekeeping, cake-decorating, dumpster-diving, Elvis, flashlights, graffiti, juggling, magic, poi, pugs, robotics, roller coasters, scrapbooks, skyscrapers, yo-yos, Ukrainian eggs, and hundreds of other interests. If the list was accurate, not only was community alive and well in America, but so was passion, albeit in some pretty obscure ways. Try though I might, I failed to come up with a single illuminating reason why anyone would want to spend an evening chatting about flashlights.