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 Meetup.com 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.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Lake Shore Limited, by Sue Miller

At the heart of The Lake Shore Limited is a play of the same name. Its author, Billy, is annoyed that people think all plays are autobiographical--yet an important element of this play is. The man Billy was living with in 2001 was killed in one of the planes that hit the Twin Towers on 9/11. In Billy's play, the main character, Gabriel, is dealing with conflicting feelings about the possibility that his wife has been killed in a terrorist attack on a train station in Chicago. Gabriel, who has clearly moved on emotionally (he has a serious girlfriend), feels relief and perhaps even momentary joy at the prospect of being unencumbered; yet, at the same time, he feels sadness, regret for the love he and his wife once had, and guilt.

The novel is told from the perspectives of four characters. Leslie is the sister of Gus, Billy's late lover, who has come to the play's opening night with her husband Pierre and a friend she once felt more than friendship toward, Sam. She has invited Sam to the play with the idea of introducing him to Billy but is stunned by the play's suggestion that Billy did not love Gus.

Rafe is the actor who plays Gabriel. His wife is dying from ALS. One night after rehearsal, he sleeps with Billy, and their conversation and the panic his wife experienced when he was late coming home give him new insight into the play, and his portrayal of Gabriel becomes a revelation even to Billy.

Billy, the playwright, had been on the verge of breaking up with Gus when he was killed. The public role she had to play as the grieving girlfriend (Leslie insisted on calling her Gus's fiance) made her guilt even worse. By the time the play is produced, she has struggled with these feelings for six years and is having difficulty making new connections with anyone except her dog.

Like Rafe, Sam had experienced the protracted death of his wife, as well as the failure of a second marriage and a degree of distance from his three sons. Somewhat offended that Leslie, with whom he once fancied himself in love, has decided to introduce him to Billy as a romantic prospect, he nonetheless likes Billy. Their first "date" is, however, a disaster.

Each character has one long section devoted to him/her and centered around the play's debut, but with a great deal of back story included. Each also has a much shorter section that takes place around the time the play closes. In addition to providing considerable detail about the fictitious two-act play, the novel has other theatrical elements--several sections end in a way that evokes the moment the curtain comes down at the end of an act and Sam, when he gazes into Leslie's and Pierce's house one night when he has driven there with the intent of declaring himself, sees them as characters in a play, one on stage left, the other stage right. While the theatrical piece may sound contrived or dull, it is neither. The ways in which different people experienced the same event spark reflection on the ways relationships change, the futility of guilt, the difficulty of being the partner who lives, and the way in which art works.

As I reread my description of the book, I recognize that I have not done it justice. The Lake Shore Limited is a marvelous book, perhaps the best I have read this year.

Favorite passages:
It was so ordinary, so unremarkable, but for Sam it had the potency of a Vermeer. Something changed in him as he watched. he had a sense in himself, in his response, of mildness, of generosity, as though in some way he were responsible for what he was seeing . . .As though he were blessing it, its very ordinariness, by witnessing it.

All her life, she had tried not to want. To be content. To be at peace. Safety lay that way, she had thought. You couldn't be hurt. (Leslie)

Gabriel looks back at him from the mirror, the man he's made, and made his own, the man whose grief drinks from his own grief, whose joy eats his joy, but whom he uses, over and over, to escape his grief and joy, to make them commodity, currency. For better or for worse--he doesn't know--to make them art. (Rafe)

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Storm Prey, by John Sandford

Lucas Davenport, the hero of John Sandford's Prey series, is something of a super-cop--brilliant, fearless, loved by his colleagues. But in Storm Prey, Lucas and his crack team are always one step behind the band of idiotic criminals they are pursuing. In fact, the criminals essentially kill themselves (and a number of others) off before Lucas et al. figure out exactly what is going on. Just about the only success they have in the book is protecting Lucas's wife Weather, who saw the criminals driving off after the heist that set the book's events in motion. Weather, meanwhile, is taking part in a complicated operation to separate conjoined twins, which provides a subplot that should be more engaging than it is.

Storm Prey is far from the best book in the series, but it did make me wonder how often the police really are a step behind the bad guys, who are causing more and more mayhem as they try to avoid being caught. I know it's fiction...but it could happen, right?

Favorite passage:

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford

As the novel opens, recently widowed Henry Lee is standing outside Seattle's boarded up Panama Hotel in 1986. In the basement, the new owner has found the personal belongings of a number of Japanese-American families interned during World War II. Henry knows that among them are possessions of his sixth-grade sweetheart, Keiko Okabe. Throughout the rest of the book, the story unfolds in two time periods--1942 and 1986.

In 1942, the two young people are struggling to find their way as Asian-Americans, one of Chinese heritage, the other Japanese. Henry's father hates the Japanese and insists that Henry wear a button proclaiming "I am Chinese," while Keiko's parents want her to be an American. The two are the only nonwhite students at their elementary school, where their parents have sent them so they can excel in America, either unaware of the challenges the children face at school or believing those challenges will make them stronger. Keiko and Henry become fast friends, although Henry must keep the friendship secret from his parents. They struggle to keep their relationship alive after Keiko's family is evacuated, and they eventually fall out of touch.

In 1986, Henry is reconnecting in the first year after his wife Evelyn's death. The links he is rebuilding are to the past and to his son Marty, with whom he always had a somewhat difficult relationship, mediated by Evelyn (and echoing his own childhood relationships with his parents). Marty is engaged to an Anglo woman, and the two surprise Henry with their reactions to his story. The climax of the story is, unfortunately, not so surprising.

Ford's idea to tell the story of race relations and the Japanese-American internment through the lens of a Chinese American is engaging, as is the "hook" of the long-lost belongings in the hotel basement. Also interesting is the Seattle history, including the intertwined histories of Chinatown, Nihonmachi, and jazz. Ford's writing, however, lacks the depth and grace to maximize the story's impact.

Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet will be the One Book One Broomfield selection for 2010 (not sure if it's been officially announced, so I may be jumping the gun). While the history will provide grist for interesting conversations, it's too bad that the writing isn't up to the standard set last year by Kent Haruf's Eventide.

Favorite passage:
None really--I do think the title is evocative, so I guess that's my favorite "passage."