Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Think Twice, by Lisa Scottoline

Lisa Scottoline's series of mysteries set at Bennie Rosato's law firm is like a legal soap opera (think L.A. Law) except that the firm has no male lawyers. Each title focuses on one or two of the four attorneys at the firm, all of whom have interesting quirks. While Scottoline is not among my favorite mystery writers, I have enjoyed the series as mindless reading.

Scottoline herself describes Think Twice, the latest title in the series, as "a thriller with gunplay, chase scenes, and bad girls, but at its warm and gooey center, it's a story about the power of a mother's love." Really? I would describe it as the story of a sociopath and her twin sister, with totally unbelievable plot elements, including the intervention of an Italian witch. Scottoline, who has gone over the edge with some of her stand-alone thrillers, has now taken the Bennie Rosato series over the cliff as well.

Favorite passage: None

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Hole We're In, by Gabrielle Zevin

On the first page of Zevin's first novel for adults, father and husband Roger Pomeroy decides to return to graduate school to get his doctorate. After all, he thinks, his children are almost grown--although the youngest, Patsy, is only ten. This decision launches the family into a deep financial hole that would have long-lasting emotional and physical ramifications.

While Roger works on his degree at a Texas university and has an affair with his ethically charged adviser, his wife Georgia works two jobs to try to keep the family afloat. But her income barely covers the family's basic needs, much less the costs of daughter Helen's wedding. To pay for the wedding, Georgia takes out credit cards in her children's names, charges them to the max, and doesn't pay them. Son Vinnie, a struggling filmmaker, is estranged from the family and, despite emotional and financial damage, seems to escape the more severe problems his sisters endure. Helen is herself a compulsive shopper who marries a man she doesn't love (but who is in dental school and thus will likely to be able to afford her impulses). Patsy, the youngest sibling, is sent back to her grandmother in Tennessee when her parents learn she has an African American boyfriend and her mother lets her take the blame for something Georgia herself did that was unacceptable to the family's Sabbath-Day Adventist faith. All of this takes place in the book's first section, told in chapters that alternate to provide a view from each family member.

The second section of the book, set six years later in 2006, focuses on Patsy, who has just returned from Iraq, pregnant with a child who is not her husband's and suffering from PTSD. In the third section, set in 2012 and titled "A Relative Paradise," Helen's six-year-old daughter is injured when she falls out of a tree, Georgia finds out she is dying, Roger's assistant Megan confesses her love to him, and Patsy is estranged from her parents though living in the same town. At the end of the section, Georgia whispers to her sleeping husband that she believes none of the religious principles he preaches from the pulpit of the church where he has recently become the pastor.

The final section of the book feels almost tacked on. While the earlier sections dealt with many controversial issues, they were clearly handled in the context of the family's experiences. In the last section, set in 2022, Patsy's daughter Britt is pregnant and wants an abortion--which is now illegal in the United States. They must drive to Canada to obtain a safe abortion; on their way home (they have moved to Florida), they learn that Roger has died and they make a side trip to Tennessee to visit his second wife (the former assistant) and attend the funeral. The book ends with a somewhat philosophical discussion between Patsy, Britt, and Megan.

While the title most obviously refers to the financial holes the family experiences, other holes (in a sock, in a backyard, in a body) also turn up throughout the narrative, sometimes to a powerful effect, sometimes not so much. Despite the emotional traumas the characters experience, Zevin's tone is rather flat--but it works. You don't need layers of description and emotion to feel the emotional holes in which the characters live and to experience a sense of dread about what is going to happen to them.

Although I didn't care for the fourth section of the book, I still think The Hole We're In is well worth reading.

Favorite passages:
It's crazy. . . The connections, she thought. Or the lack of them. The discontinuity. How it was impossible to understand how a person got from point a to point b, even if you were that person and you had been there for every, every step. How there were unseen and mysterious forces beyond yourself. how you run into a woman with no nipples and two weeks later you found yourself on a Greyhound bus bound for Nowheresville.

She thought the festivities were a cross between a business meeting and a trip to a wax museum, perhaps, a wake.

Patsy was not immune to the sight of her mother being escorted out of the Slickmart, to the pretty business of the woman who had raised her come undone. But she had seen some hard things in her life already and had learned to treat everything like the photograph of the thing instead of the thing itself. She could hang the picture in the museum and carry on. And that's what she did. That day was no more or no less than day eleven of Patsy's job at the Slickmart.

(Note that all of these passages are from chapters providing Patsy's perspective--she's obviously the character that the reader--at least this reader--cared most deeply about.)

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict, by Laurie Viera Rigler

A follow-up to Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, which I have not read, Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict finds Jane Mansfield, injured in a riding accident in 1813 England, waking up in the body of Courtney Stone, a 21st-century inhabitant of Los Angeles. Both Courtney and Jane are Austen fans who have recently been disappointed in love. Jane speaks and thinks in the author's idea of regency style (likely based on her own reading of Austen--her bio describes her as a "life member of the Jane Austen Society of North America"), and her "fish out of water" experiences in LA are sometimes amusing. The message Rigler seems to be conveying--that women may have more choices than they did 200 years ago but their hopes and dreams are pretty much the same--is simplistic and, at least to this non-reader of sci-fi, her explanation of the time travel aspects of the story is lame.

So, if you want a good book about time travel, read The Time Traveler's Wife. If you want something Austenian, rereading Austen would be more rewarding.

Favorite passage: None

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Irresistible Henry House, by Lisa Grunwald

The idea behind this book was irresistible to someone whose sister was a home ec major in the mid-1960s and actually lived in a "practice house" one semester (though I don't think there were "practice babies" involved). A practice house--a home operated by the home economics department of a university, in which young women have the opportunity to practice the skills of homemaking--is at the center of Lisa Grunwald's novel. Martha Gaines is the woman who runs the house at fictional Wilton College. Every two years, a new baby from the local orphanage comes to live at the house; a series of young women learn about child care and development by taking turns taking care of the baby.

Henry House (all the babies are given the last name House and an alliterative first name) is the baby who arrives just as Martha is returning from a year's forced sabbatical. It is 1946, and Dr. Spock has just published the first edition of his book on child care. But Martha's approach is far different from Spock's--the House babies adapt to a rigid schedule, are not picked up when they cry, and in general are not coddled. But Martha falls for the infant Henry and, learning that he is the illegitimate grandchild of the college president, manages to get permission to informally adopt the boy. Living upstairs in the practice house, Henry watches the other practice babies and practice mothers come and go while enduring Martha's rather smothering affections. When his biological mother Betty shows up, he is furious at Martha for lying (she had told him his parents were dead) and Betty for leaving him; he acts out that rage by becoming mute.

The university president insists that Henry be sent to a high school for troubled children. While he regains his voice, he also feels betrayed once again by a faculty couple who befriend him but then are diverted by their own newborn child. Henry runs away to New York to live with Betty, an arrangement that ends when she decides to relocate to Paris. Henry then spends time in LA working on animations for Mary Poppins and in London working on Yellow Submarine. In London he lives with another grown-up practice baby with whom he reconnected at Martha's funeral. Like him, she has a gift for attracting people to her but no skill at making real emotional attachments. By observing her, Henry sees some of his own flaws and decides to return to New York to try to win over his childhood friend Mary Jane, the only person for whom he has genuine feelings.

While this book is enjoyable, it does not have the depth of The World According to Garp, to which it has been compared. The portion of the book in which Henry wanders through iconic cultural moments in LA and London--which provokes comparisons to Forest Gump--is an unnecessarily drawn-out demonstration of Henry's emotional problems. The earlier sections of the book, in the practice house and then at the boarding school, are more rewarding and insightful.

Favorite passage:
Unfortunately, nothing really stood out for me except one pet peeve: Grunwald repeatedly shares insights about characters' motivations/feelings/hang-ups by saying "It was not until years later that Henry would realize..." Example: ". . . it would take years for her to realize that what had provoked Henry was her trying to force him to make a choice." Writing from a child's perspective limits the amount of psychological insight an author can include without rendering the child completely unrealistic--but repeated use of this device is not an effective way around the problem.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Comfort Food, by Kate Jacobs

Since I panned The Friday Night Knitting Club, you might be wondering why I just read another Kate Jacobs book. Weeellll, it was a twofer (buy one, the other is free) and I needed something light after struggling through The Gold Bug Variations. The premise of Comfort Food--an aging cooking show host who is a controlling perfectionist is forced to work with a treacherous former beauty queen who will do anything to succeed--could have been the set-up for an enjoyable comic novel. Unfortunately, Kate Jacobs does not have a gift for comedy--when she tries to be funny, the scenes are simply ridiculous. Nor does she have any real talent for writing--some of the writing is truly terrible, the rest simply ineffective. Here are a couple of examples:

"The problem, she reflected one morning while washing her tawny brown hair with color-enhancing shampoo, developed somewhere between working on the show schedule for the upcoming year and learning that the CookingChannel was slashing the budget and ordering fewer episodes than usual." Do we need to know she's using color-enhancing shampoo? Because including that information makes the sentence a total mess--was the shampoo developed somewhere (note: not sometime) between the two events? No, but that's the confusing idea you might get from this horrid sentence.

"It had been a gamble when she opened, a chunk of her late husband's life insurance money dwindling in a bank account and her two young daughters." What??

At least in this book she doesn't kill off her protagonist, instead simply having her lose all her money. As in her previous novel, all the quirky characters are paired off and happy by the end of this book--but I didn't really care, as none of them seemed remotely real.

Favorite passage: None, but I do like the title.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Gold Bug Variations, by Richard Powers

The Gold Bug Variations has been on my "to-read" list for a decade. In the meantime, I read two other Richard Powers books, including The Time of Our Singing, which I thought was one of the best novels I had read in years. Thus, I was motivated to read this book--and it was a good thing because, without motivation, I never would have made it through this challenging book.

The Gold Bug Variations has three main characters and narratives that occur in three time periods. One character, Jan O'Deigh, is a librarian who narrates the stories in two of the time periods. In 1983, she is approached by Franklin Todd, an ABD art historian who is working the night shift in a data-processing plant; Todd wants to know more about his coworker, Dr. Stuart Ressler, whom Jan soon discovers was an up-and-coming DNA researcher at the University of Illinois in the mid-50s. Jan and Todd (who fall in love) are determined to learn how Ressler came to be working a dead-end job, listening over and over to Bach's Goldberg Variations; their quest to understand him, their love affair, and other events of 1983-84 make up the first narrative. The second narrative is the story of Ressler's year in Urbana, a year in which he fell in love with a married colleague, watched others of his colleagues deteriorate, and made a breakthrough in understanding DNA coding. In the third narrative, Dr. Ressler has died, Todd is missing, and Jan has quit her job to spend a year trying to understand Ressler's early work. For much of the book, it feels like little happens in any of the three narratives, although each comes to something of a climax near the end of the book.

Many of the book's 600+ pages are devoted to the science of DNA, Bach's music, and the metaphorical connections between the two. The text is also rife with literary allusions, some metaphors based on computer programming, and puns (the title itself is a double pun--on Bach's work and a Poe short story). If I were smarter or willing to work harder, I'm sure the book would have been more meaningful to me. Being who I am, however, I can admire Powers's command of so many different subjects and his ability to connect them, but I cannot really say I enjoyed this book or found the deep meaning I'm sure is there. Still, I'm planning to read Powers's new book, Generosity, in which he returns to genetics.

Favorite passage:
But just because translation is everywhere necessary, it doesn't follow that it's possible. . . . What I say depends on what I say it with.

What he had done, how he had chosen to spend his energies, really was science. A way of looking, reverencing. And the purpose of all science, like living, which amounts to the same thing, was not the accumulation of gnostic power, fixing of formulas for the names of God, stockpiling brutal efficiency, accomplishing the sadistic myth of progress. The purpose of science was to revive and cultivate a perpetual state of wonder. For nothing deserved wonder as much as our capacity to feel it.

Of interest:
Powers is a faculty member (and alum) of my alma mater, the University of Illinois. The alumni magazine had an interesting article about him a couple of years ago:
He is also a former winner of the Macarthur "Genius" grant.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

House Rules, by Jodi Picoult

Quick, Jodi Picoult fans: what do you expect in a new book from the author? A New England setting, multiple narrators, a child/teen plagued with a problem, a family struggling to cope with that problem, a legal issue, and a twist at the end of the book. Give the reader a prize--that's exactly what you get in House Rules, but fortunately the book is a step up from Picoult's past few efforts.

The central character of House Rules is Jacob Hunt, an 18-year-old who has Asperger's Syndrome. He struggles with social communication and isolation, falling back on movie quotes when he cannot figure out how to respond in conversation; suffers meltdowns when his carefully constructed schedule is disrupted (he eats and wears only one color each day--Friday, for example, is blue day); and obsesses about forensic science to the point where he sometimes shows up at crime scenes and offers advice to the police. His single mother Emma struggles mightily to meet Jacob's needs and keep the family afloat financially. Often lost in the fray but still expected to protect his brother when necessary is 15-year-old Theo, the younger brother who, as the book opens, is acting out rather seriously--he has progressed from voyeurism to breaking and entering.

The legal issue arises when Jacob's social skills tutor, a grad student named Jess, is reported missing. By the time she is found dead, we know that both Jacob and Theo have been at her house around the time of her death. Jacob is charged with her murder, and it quickly becomes apparent that Asperger's and the courtroom are not a good fit. Adding to the tension is the marginal competence of Jacob's farrier-turned-lawyer Oliver. While Oliver is lovable and quickly becomes part of the family, his legal skills are iffy (he lives in his office above the local pizza parlor--not the first place most of us would look for a lawyer). A Picoultian plot twist at the end of the book finally brings clarity to the question of how Jess died.

Picoult uses the multiple narrator device effectively; each of the characters given a voice emerges as a multi-faceted individual. Her portrayal of how Jacob's mind works is both moving and thought-provoking (though I wish she hadn't brought in the vaccination claims--it doesn't add anything to our understanding and for me undercuts her authority in writing about autism). As with the mothers in other Picoult books, Emma is both admirable and deeply flawed. The one narrative voice that doesn't quite fit is the police captain, who seems to float in and out of the story, rather than being integral as the other characters are. Yet Picoult needs him to tell certain aspects of the story, so I understand why he is included.

Other devices are less effective, including the final predictable plot twist, the insertion of material from the archives of the advice column Emma was writing at the beginning of the story, and inclusion of "case files" describing how forensic science was used to put various murderers in prison.

House Rules is not a great book, but Jodi Picoult has created a great character in Jacob Hunt, and seeing how his mind works makes the book a worthwhile read.

Favorite passage:
Nobody ever asks Superman if X-ray vision is a drag; if it gets old looking into brick buildings and seeing guys beat their wives or lonely women getting wasted or losers surfing porn sites. Nobody ever asks Spider-Man if he gets vertigo. If their superpowers are anything like mine, it's no wonder they're always putting themselves in harm's way. They're probably hoping for a quick death.

Of interest:
If you find Picoult's portrayal of Asperger's syndrome interesting, you might enjoy the HBO film Temple Grandin, which provides a fascinating look into Dr. Grandin's life in her teens and twenties. Grandin is also autistic, and the film uses some interesting devices to give the viewer a glimpse of how her mind works. Grandin has written several books that are now on my "to-read" list.

Monday, March 8, 2010

What Is Novel Conversations Reading?

For the next four months, Novel Conversations will be reading:

Shanghai Girls, by Lisa See (April)
Our Town, by Thornton Wilder (May)
Sarah's Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay (June)
The Help, by Kathryn Stockett (July)

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Open, by Andre Agassi

I am not a fan of the memoir, and I don't think I've read a memoir by an athlete since the early 1970s, when my dad talked me into reading Ball Four, by Jim Bouton (which I still remember as laugh-out-loud funny). I probably wouldn't have read Andre Agassi's book if my daughter-in-law hadn't loaned me her copy...but I'm really happy that I did.

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. As I saw Andre make so many mistakes--trying meth and marrying Brooke Shields when he knew shouldn't are but two examples--I rethought some of my judgments of other top athletes with pushy parents (yes, Tiger Woods was on my mind).

Open is also very well written (J.R. Moehringer worked on the book with Agassi). The prologue, titled 'The End," is wonderful--one of the best first chapters I've read in a long time. You have to read this book once you're read the opener. I occasionally got a bit tired of the accounts of tennis matches (I know, I know, he's a tennis player after all), but the angst and the relationships kept me going. A number of things about Andre's relationship with his eventual wife Steffi were almost unbelievable, with the account of the initial meeting of the two fathers approaching the surreal (though I absolutely believe it happened).

I wholeheartedly recommend Open, for fans and non-fans of memoirs and sports.

Favorite passages:

People often ask what it's like, this tennis life, and I can never think how to describe it. But that word comes closest. More than anything else, it's a wrenching, thrilling, horrible, astonishing whirl. It even exerts a faint centrifugal force, which I've spent three decades fighting. Now, lying on my back under Arthur Ashe Stadium, holding hands with a vanquished opponent and waiting for someone to come help us, I do the only thing I can do. I stop fighting it. I just close my eyes and watch.

I watch Stefanie watching the kids, smiling, and I think of the four of us, four distinct personalities. Four different surfaces. And yet a matching set. Complete. On the eve of my final tournament, I enjoy that sense we all seek, that knowledge we get only a few times in life, that the themes of our life are connected, the seeds of our ending were there in the beginning, and vice versa.