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