Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Friday Night Knitting Club, by Kate Jacobs

A few weeks ago, I started reading an extremely challenging novel by Richard Powers. I got to page 168 and suddenly veered off into an orgy of bestsellers, including the treacly The Friday Night Knitting Club. The "knitting book" seems to have followed the "book club book" and the "quilting circle book" as a popular subgenre of novels aimed at women. All share an organizing structure--a group of women friends whose bonding over knitting needles or Jane Austen or quilt squares helps them navigate the life challenges they're facing.

In this case, the group is made up of women who hang around the Walker and Daughter yarn shop in Manhattan. Georgia Walker, owner of the store, is the central character, a beleaguered single mother who has struggled to make the shop go but simultaneously provides an emotional anchor for those who hang around the shop. The other members of the group are a quirky and diverse lot: a Chinese-American grad student, an elderly Jewish widow who has provided capital for the store, a wealthy housewife who betrayed Georgia when they were BFFs in high school, and so on. James, the African-American father of Georgia's daughter Dakota, has reappeared and wants to be part of Georgia and Dakota's life.

The story lines are predictable, aiming to give the reader a warm-fuzziness with a soupcon of sadness. I need to get back to Powers.

Favorite passage:
Being invited into a person's living quarters in New York City is a large gesture of trust. Certainly their choice of artwork, furniture, paint color, reveals much about their taste and style. But that's the case anywhere, isn't it? New York is different . . . . Because unless you go out of your way to live hugely above or below your means, letting a friend, a colleague, a significant other into your home reveals everything: your attitudes, your sense of style, and the state of your pocketbook. . . . Opening your apartment door invites envy or condescension. It changes the playing field.

The truth comes down to this: In a city obsessed with wealth and status, there are few gestures more intimate than being invited into someone's home.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

I, Alex Cross, by James Patterson

James Patterson is a critically despised but bestselling author of books in various genre and for readers of various ages. The Alex Cross series, which launched his career (some would say his brand), features an African-American detective with the Washington, DC, police who is also a single father and psychology Ph.D.

The Cross books are written to a formula: Alex must bring in a psychologically damaged but brilliant serial killer while dealing with the ongoing challenge of paying adequate attention to his children and trying to maintain a romantic life. The story is told in short (one- to three-page) chapters that cut between Alex and other characters. Few words are expended on description. I, Alex Cross is no different. Alex's estranged niece, a highly paid "escort," is found murdered, and soon the DC area is littered with the bodies of other prostitutes and anyone who might be able to tie their deaths to "Zeus," whose connection to the White House is soon apparent. Meanwhile, Nana, Cross's grandmother, suffers congestive heart failure and ends up in a coma, fueling Alex's angst. The plot is ridiculous, Alex Cross too good to be true (he was played by Morgan Freeman, so he's right up there with God and Mandela)--but you can read the book's nearly 300 pages so quickly, you don't even feel like you're wasting time.

Favorite passage: None

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

Translated from French, The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a philosophical novel. Ideas about life, beauty, and art are channeled through two characters: Renee Michel, the 50-something concierge in a building of fancy flats in Paris, and Paloma Josse, a bright 12-year-old who lives in the building and is planning to burn her family's apartment and commit suicide on her 13th birthday.

For much of the novel, the two have no connection, though they have much in common. Both are hiding their true selves. Renee presents herself as a stereotypical Parisian concierge while actually spending her time reading Russian novels, watching Japanese films, and critiquing phenomenology. She is disdainful of the residents of the building but at the same time fears they will discover she is not who she purports to be. Paloma, meanwhile, is hiding from her family and the "despicable vacuousness of bourgeois existence." She chastises her French teacher for misunderstanding the importance of grammar, as Renee gasps over the misplacement of a comma in a resident's note. The two were clearly meant to be friends.

Just as I began to find the philosophical musings a bit tedious, Kakuro Ozu moves into the building, creating more of a story line. Ozu is wealthy, kind, and amazingly insightful. He befriends both Paloma and Renee and sees that the two of them would benefit from spending time together. These new connections bring Paloma and Renee a "certainty of self" they had previously lacked.

Renee, Paloma, and Kakuro are charming, if somewhat unbelievable, characters, and Barbery offers her philosophical mini-treatises with a strong dose of humor. I was troubled by the sudden pop-psychological explanation for Renee's fear of being recognized as the sophisticated thinker she is; the final series of events could be read as suggesting that her fear was well=founded, which made the ending unsatisfying for me. Overall, however, the book is worth reading and I look forward to Novel Conversations' discussion of The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

Favorite passages:
Pity the poor in spirit who know neither the enchantment nor the beauty of language.

When movement has been banned from a nature that seeks its continuity, when it becomes renegade and remarkable by virtue of its very discontinuity, it attains the level of esthetic creation.
Because art is life, playing to other rhythms.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Espresso Tales, by Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith is a hugely popular writer, best known for the series, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. He has also written several other series, and I chose the second book in his 44 Scotland Street to see what makes Smith so popular (well, really I didn't choose it--my mom happened to have it).

Titles in the series provide a look into the lives of various residents of the title address. Espresso Tales features Pat, who is about to start college after two "gap" years and has an adventure with a handsome nudist; her obnoxious roommate Bruce, who has been fired from his job and dumped by his American girlfriend; their 60-year-old neighbor, who regales Pat with philosophy, anthropological insights, and stories; Pat's boss Matthew, his father, and the father's possibly gold-digging girlfriend; and a variety of other characters (one set of whom seemed to have no relation to the building or any of the other characters). Smith does have a way with characters--quickly and wittily conveying their personalities. He's particularly skilled at drawing individuals with significant flaws.

One such character is Irene, mother of six-year-old Bertie and wife of the passive Stuart. Bertie is very bright, and his mother views his upbringing as a project, taking him to yoga and therapy and forcing him to wear pink dungarees to school. Both Irene and Bertie's psychiatrist are far more in need of therapy than Bertie; at some points in the story, you can't help thinking that Bertie may not escape childhood with his sanity intact, but events near the end of the book point to happier days ahead.

I enjoyed Bertie's story, found some of the numerous other characters interesting enough, and occasionally got a chuckle from Smith's rather wicked humor. Unfortunately, however, the stories don't really add up to anything. In addition, numerous forward threads (hints at what happened in the previous book) and unfinished business (Smith has written three more books in the series since this one was published) make you feel like the intent is primarily to keep selling books. So, I can see the appeal of Smith's work but probably won't pick up another of his books.

Favorite passage:

Dr. Fairbairn nodded . . . "Any signs of further obsessional behaviour?"

Irene looked up at the ceiling. There had been nothing as bad as the setting fire to Stuart's Guardian, but there certainly had been little things. There had been deliberate mistakes with Italian verbs (a mixing up of past participles, for example), and there had been reluctance, marked reluctance, to practice the scales for his grade seven saxophone examination.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Swimming, by Nicola Keegan

No doubt attracted by Swimming's brilliant blue cover (the brilliant blue of a swimming pool, of course), my two-year-old granddaughter, eager to get to the children's section, pulled the book off the new fiction shelf, saying "Here, Grandma. read this one." Had she not "recommended" it, I would have missed a very interesting read.

Philomena narrates the book, beginning when she was a plump and "problematic" nine-month-old who had never slept more than "one hour and forty-three minutes." Desperate, her parents have taken her to the swimming pool, where she stuns everyone by not only swimming but doing a flip turn. Mena (or Phil or Boo or Pip, a hated nickname given her as a teenager by a jealous fellow swimmer) has found the place where she belongs. As her swimming skills improve, the body that makes her a freak in her Kansas Catholic school--she 6'2" and has huge feet--also makes her a champion. Swimming takes her to to Stanford University and to three Olympics--the tainted Los Angeles Olympics where the Soviet bloc nations do not compete, the Seoul Olympics at which the testerone-enhanced East Germans kick the Americans' butts, and Barcelona where she triumphs.

But the book is not really about swimming--it's about surviving heartbreak, growing up, moving on. When they are teenagers, Mena's older sister dies of Hodgkin's lymphoma, and her father is killed in a plane crash. Mena's mother stops leaving the house, one younger sister becomes an addict, and the other prays...a lot. Mena escapes through swimming, but she also suffers. When she finally retires from swimming, her struggles reveal just how little peace she has made with her past and herself.

Lest this sound horribly depressing (and it IS sad), Keegan provides plenty of humor. The Mena whose head we live in throughout the book has a sharp wit. For example, in the mourning period after her father's death, she divides the waves of visitors to their home as Encouraging Catholics, Suffering Catholics, and Dark Catholics. The interactions among swimmers--male and female--are described with equal humor (although, when we see Mena through others' eyes, as Keegan occasionally allows us to do, we realize how different the exterior and interior Menas are).

Keegan does not use quotation marks, instead putting dialogue in italics; the fact that some of the material in italics happens only in Mena's head can be confusing, but I got used to it as the book progressed. One of the stylistic things I noticed was Keegan's way with a list. She describes pain in a set of two lists ("The pain comes in shock waves, rogue waves, freak waves, killer waves, surging, spilling, rolling, plunging"). She describes Mena's break-up with her first real love through a list of the items that gradually disappear from her apartment, until the lover's key appears on the counter. It's a somewhat unusual technique that she uses frequently, and it works.

Favorite passage:
Life is a series of complicated errors. Life is all about gliding through angles with curves. And I have real proof, once again, that my mind cannot prepare my body for anything outside a pool, so I close my eyes and swim into sex in a ghostlike glide, knowing that with time this will be funny . . .