Saturday, December 31, 2011

Blue Nights, by Joan Didion

So the real last book of 2011 is Joan Didion's Blue Nights, a slim melancholy volume that matches my mood of a New Year's Eve. ("What? The year is over and I didn't accomplish anything? Alus I'm getting so old.". . . You get the drift.) If you read Didion's Year of Magical Thinking, you know that in the year after her husband died suddenly, she was also dealing with her daughter Quintana's illness. Quintana died a year and a half after her father. This slim volume is a moving meditation on the loss of a child, parenting, and aging.

Didion describes memories of Quintana's life--both pleasant and troubling--and castigates herself for not understanding the emotional issues that her daughter struggled with. Quintana was adopted as an infant, and her parents followed the recommended method of telling their daughter that she was a chosen child, but this approach did little to assuage Quintana's fear of abandonment (she often asked her parents what would have happened if they hadn't been home to answer the phone when the doctor called to say a baby was available). Didion also wonders if she and husband John Gregory Dunne placed their daughter in adult situations too early

At the same time that Didion is dealing with her daughter's death and self-doubt about her parenting, she is facing nagging health problems of her own and sometimes-crippling fear that she will fall and be injured, that her legs simply will not hold her when she tries to stand. She has, in her words, lost her "sense of the possible." As she grapples with the problem of having no one to list as an emergency contact when she checks into the hospital, she realizes that her fear is really the fear of losing her memories of her daughter.

I find it difficult to describe how Didion has constructed the book--she dips back and forth in time, returning to certain scenes, stories, and especially quotes from Quintana as touchstones in her reflections. She occasionally addresses the reader directly, particularly as she worries about her ability to think and write as she once did ("Even the correct stance for telling you this, the ways to describe what is happening to me, the attitude, the tone, the very words, now elude my grasp.") The construction nonetheless conveys well the thoughts that torture Didion as she grieves her daughter, regrets he failures as a parent, and experiences the difficulties of aging.

Favorite passage:

In certain latitudes, there comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long and blue. . . . Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.

[The sentences above are the first and last sentences of the book's first chapter, one long paragraph that explains the title and beautifully sets a tone for the book.]

. . . when we talk about our children what are we saying? Are we saying what it meant to us to have them? What it meant to us not to have them? What it meant to let them go? Are we talking about the enigma of pledging ourselves to protect the unprotectable? About the whole puzzle of being a parent? Time passes.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Addendum to Best of 2011

I love magazines, and every year read lots of good essays and articles in magazines that I don't make note of and (because I have the memory of a 61-year-old) cannot remember specifics about when I do my "Best of" post. This year, I want to recommend two recent David Brooks' columns from the NYT, in which he highlights some of the best magazine essays of the year. The two columns can be found at and I am working my way through the essays right now and, while I expect to disagree with Brooks on some of his selections (I certainly disagree with him on plenty of other things), I join him in celebrating long-form journalism. Let's not let great magazines die in 2012!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Best of 2011

This year began with a mystery, The Last Lie by Stephen White, and included several somewhat unsatisfying mystery-reading binges. Although the year isn't yet over, I'm willing to say it has ended with The Astral, a look at marriage too negative even for me--and I thought I had a jaded view of the institution. Here are the best books I read between the two:

Best Novel: The Submission, by Amy Waldman

The Submission is a complex look at the tragic effects of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001--both impacts on individuals, on the Muslim and non-Muslim communities of New York City, and even on the national psyche. Two characters are central to the book-- Claire Burwell, a 9/11 widow who is representing families on the jury choosing a design for the memorial to built at Ground Zero, and Mohammad ("Mo") Khan, the Muslim-American architect who submitted the winning plan. This choice is, not surprisingly, controversial, and that controversy gives first-time novelist Amy Waldman an opportunity to explore ideas about right and wrong, ambiguity, and the ways in which people deal with powerful emotions--and she takes up the challenge with grace and insight. The Submission is not a perfect novel, but it's a very good one that raises issues all of us should spend time thinking about.

Honorable Mention: Private Life, by Jane Smiley

Best Mystery: The Girl in the Green Raincoat, by Laura Lippman

For the second year in a row, a mystery by Laura Lippman tops this category. The fact that this was a very slim book, originally written to be published as a serial in The New York Times Magazine, indicates something about the Italicquality of many of the mysteries being published (and read by me). Its origin as a serial story is one of its interesting features, as Lippman has structured it so that each chapter contributes to the overall story (which pays homage to Rear Window and The Daughter of Time) while presenting a mini-mystery of its own. The story also marks a major turning point in the life of Lippman's character, Tess Monaghan. While Tess made a brief appearance in Lippman's The Most Dangerous Thing (which I did not like), we are still waiting to see how Tess will cope with parenthood. Hopefully, we will not have to wait too long--it's one of the few things in series mystery that I am still interested in!

Best Short Stories: Swim Back to Me, by Ann Packer

I often find short stories a bit too opaque for my rather literal and logical-sequential mind. In reviewing this year's reading, however, I notice that I read a lot of short story collections and enjoyed quite a few of them. Swim Back to Me, by Ann Packer, includes six stories. The first and last are linked by characters who appear in both; the four in the middle are stand-alone stories. I found all but one moving examinations of how people deal with pain and loss. In a relatively small number of pages, Packer creates multidimensional characters and places them in authentic relationships and places.

Honorable Mention: You Are Free, by Denzy Senna, and You Know When the Men Are Gone, by Siobhan Fallon

Best Nonfiction: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks was a young African-American mother with cancer. The cells taken from the tumor on her cervix lived much longer than she did--becoming the first ever to live and reproduce in lab cultures. Rebecca Skloot weaves together the stories of Henrietta and her children with an examination of how the HeLa cells, as they became known, were used and the controversies that arose around them. Through these narratives, she explores issues of poverty, race and medicine, and the ethics of research that uses tissue taken from human beings. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a good story that also raises important sociocultural and ethical issues.

Honorable Mention: The Long Good-Bye, by Meghan O'Rourke

Best Poetry

Once again, I have read precious little poetry this year. I do read the poem that comes out every day in Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac ( and enjoy the poetry posted on FB by Wisconsin poet (and old friend) Norma Gay Prewett. Gay is an early riser, and her FB friends are happy on those mornings when she crafts an early morning poem and drops it on FB for us to savor.

Resolution for 2012: Make more of an effort to read poetry (perhaps making time for poetry by reading fewer mysteries)!

Odd Stylistic "Trend" of the Year: First-Person Plural Narration

I read three books that were written in the first-person plural this year. Each author used this rather odd device for a different purpose. In The Weird Sisters, Eleanor Brown used first-person plural to show how closely bound the three sisters were, even though they appeared to have taken very different paths in life. In The Fates Will Find Their Way, Hannah Pittard used first- person plural to heighten the mystery around the disappearance at the heart of the novel. The only use of this technique that I found to be effective was in The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka. Because she does not create individual characters, Otsuka's book is truly the story of a group--Japanese picture brides who came to the United States in the early 20th century. By not individuating, the author gives the story of the struggles of these women a power that the stories of a few individuals would not have had.

The Astral, by Kate Christensen

Harry Quirk is a poet--one who cleaves to traditional notions of rhyme and meter--translated from his native Iowa to New York City. For more than 30 years, he has been married to Luz, a Mexican-American nurse whose work has supported him in his poetic efforts. In the apartment building known as The Astral, they raised two children, both of whom have taken unusual paths as adults: Karina is a lesbian freegan, who forages for food and consumer goods to give to the poor people she lives among, while Hector has joined a cult on Long Island, where he is being groomed as the Second Coming.

As the book opens, Luz has thrown Harry out because she found(and destroyed) his latest book--a collection of sonnets she believes Harry wrote to his long-time friend Marion. Although Harry denies that he ever slept with Marion, he did have an affair 12 years earlier, an affair Luz has never forgiven him for. Harry is desperate to get back together with Luz--despite the fact that he and others often refer to her as "crazy"--and thinks and worries the problem while he walks and, later, bikes around Brooklyn. He lodges in five different places over the course of the few weeks in which the book takes place, drinks in at least as many local dives, has endless conversations about marriage in general and his marriage in particular (sometimes internal dialogues, sometimes engaged in with other people), and manages to get two friends to give him jobs (having spent most of his life writing poetry, his work experience is extremely limited).

With a couple of exceptions (Harry and Marion's friendship, his relationship with Karina), marriage, family relationships, therapeutic relationships, and friendship all come off badly in The Astral. People are either untrusting or untrustworthy, they gossip and take sides, they betray and take advantage of one another. In many of the relationships depicted, women are portrayed as manipulating bitches, men as pawns who allow themselves to be manipulated to meet other needs. Very little happens in the book--perhaps because Christensen sees people as doing very little that is proactive, including Harry and other artists among his friends, who are not producing very much art. (The exceptions are Karina and her freegan friends.) It's a depressing depiction and not one that I felt added to my understanding of the human condition.

While I give Christensen kudos for creating a middle-aged male character who seems (to this slightly-past-middle-aged woman) authentic, I have to admit that, were the author of this book a man, I'd probably be calling him misogynistic. I had read several positive reviews of The Astral, but I cannot recommend it.

Favorite passage:
Back in the cold, bright day, I made my way to Marion's empty house, where I lay in lordly supine bliss like an emperor on the couch and surfed a fresh wave of hope and joy into a long, restorative nap.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

V Is for Vengeance, by Sue Grafton

A recent Princeton graduate borrows money from mobster Lorenzo Dante, blows it all in Las Vegas, and is thrown to his death from the top of a parking garage. Kinsey Milhone sees two women shoplifting in Nordstrom's, turns one of them in, and is almost run down by the other. Days later, the shoplifter who was apprehended jumps from a railroad bridge. Kinsey attends her wake and is hired by her fiance to find out the truth about her death. Meanwhile Nora, the wife of a wealthy attorney learns her husband is having an affair. Building up her cash reserves, Nora tries to sell some jewelry to Dante, who is immediately attracted to her. But he is also dealing with problems in his business: the shoplifters worked for him and his brother made the decision to eliminate one of them--just as he decided to eliminate the Princeton graduate. If all this were not enough, Kinsey is called on to help a small-time crook who once hired her from prison; neighbor/landlord Henry is in Michigan caring for his older sister, who was injured in a fall; and a copy from Kinsey's past is dogging her.

Does this sound like a well-plotted mystery or an overly complicated series of coincidences and subplots? I vote for the latter. I was also surprised--after the questions raised in the U volume in the series--that this book completely ignored Kinsey's attempts to learn more about her family history, which I thought would play a major role in V-Z.

Favorite passage: None

The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt, by Caroline Preston

The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt is a graphic novel--but not in the comic book/manga sense. Rather, it is constructed as a scrapbook kept by a recent high school graduate. Each full-color page is decorated with memorabilia, clippings, letters, and notes from Frankie Pratt, a small town New Hampshire girl with dreams of becoming a writer. The scrapbook covers eight years in Frankie's life, in which she goes to Vassar, gets a job writing at True Story, works as an editor at a literary magazine in Paris, and returns to New Hampshire to care for her mother. Despite being a feminist (her hair is bobbed after all), Frankie has a penchant for falling in love with the wrong man and then running away. Yes the plot is straight from the chick-lit supply of story lines--with a dash of history and social commentary.

But this book is not about the thin plot--it's about the way Preston tells the story and develops Frankie's character through the scrapbook technique. While it takes little time to "read" this book, you could spend hours looking closely at the memorabilia. For example, on the first page after Frankie enrolls at Vassar are pictures of the campus overlaid with the rules at Vassar, definitions of Vassar slang, a Vassar joke, and a Vassar song; the facing page shows her class schedule, three pictures of stylish girls cut from magazines, and Frankie's assessment of the "pecking order of freshman girls" (public school scholarship students like her are the lowest level). When, in her New York phase, the magazine her friend Oliver is working for publishes its first issue, there are clips from that first New Yorker, as well as a list of reasons Frankie finds the issue a bore (starting with "British fop on cover"). From her time in Paris, there is a page of wine labels, partially visible under a list of the topics expats talk about when drinking in bars.

I don't think the scrapbook format will become as ubiquitous as the comic book style of graphic novel; nonetheless, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt is an entertainment worth checking out.

Favorite passage:

Commenting on her love of This Side of Paradise: I take it as a zoological study of how rich college boys think and talk. (And more useful than my zoology text, which I am 2 chapters behind in already!)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Restaurant Chef, by Gabrielle Hamilton

Despite its subtitle and chapters on the author's cooking at a summer camp, for catering companies, and finally in her own restaurant, Blood, Bones and Butter seems to be more about Hamilton's search for family than her development as a chef. Hamilton was the youngest of five children born to somewhat bohemian parents. Life in the family was, for her, best captured in the huge annual party they threw--the mix of people who attended, the teamwork required to prepare and roast five lambs and create numerous side dishes, the beauty of the evening in rural Pennsylvania.

But then, when Hamilton was 12, her parents divorced and essentially left the children to finish raising themselves. At age 13, Hamilton realized she needed a job to sustain herself and began working in restaurants. She also began smoking, stealing cars, breaking into houses, and...well, you get the picture. As a 16-year-old high school graduate, she moved to New York City with $235 and began working at a restaurant where the staff did copious amounts of cocaine and stole from their employers.

It is something of a relief when Hamilton jumps forward a few years and the reader learns that she has managed to graduate from college and forge a relationship with another woman. She is working in what she calls "the most unsavory corner of the food industry, except for maybe poultry processing"--catering. Her description of this work, as well as her summer job cooking at a camp, is both hilarious and somewhat frightening (thinking about the catered meals I've eaten).

After getting an MFA in creative writing, Hamilton has an opportunity to open her own restaurant, and she jumps at the chance. Surprisingly, the chapters devoted to the restaurant are fairly thin, although it is clear that the restaurant crew is becoming her family (her girlfriend is the bartender).

Enter her future husband Michele, an Italian medical researcher who has worked in the United States for more than a decade. They have an affair and he courts her; when he suddenly has green card problems, they marry although the marriage is far from traditional. They do not live together (although Hamilton's girlfriend has moved out!), and Michele seems to lose interest in any real interaction with his wife, even after they have two sons. Hamilton, for her part, refers to the marriage as "performance art" but also talks about her dream of a "real" marriage. And clearly, she yearns to be enfolded into Michele's Italian family, which they visit every year. While they are welcoming, she realizes in the final chapter that she will never truly be part of the clan.

I'm not a big fan of memoirs, but felt drawn to this one because the reviews I had read suggested it was a book about eating and cooking. Certainly, a chef cannot write about her life without writing about food, but that hardly seems the primary focus of the book and, in the search for family that actually dominates, there are many questions about why Hamilton does what she does that remain unanswered.

Favorite passage:
She [Michele's mother Alda] and I do not speak the same language, and because of that our relationship really thrives. . . . we just hug and cook a lot. Which can seem, at times, like a greater intimacy than the one I have with her son, and a very compelling reason to stay married to him.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Blueprints for Building Better Girls, by Elissa Schappell

Ironically titled after an etiquette book of decades past, Blueprints for Building Better Girls is a collection of short stories, some linked, about young women with wide ranging problems. One is a high school student with an undeserved reputation as a slut, an alcoholic father, and a depressed mother; she forges a relationship with a formerly fat wrestler and is devastated when he ignores her in order to impress some of the "mean girls" who make her life miserable. In a later story, we learn that she has married and has a son, who she is now trying to dissuade from a romance with an older woman by telling him about a tragic event in her college years (although she pretends it happened to a friend rather than to her). Another character is suffering a nervous breakdown after being raped; her mother delegates her the responsibility for checking in with her grandfather, who has dementia, and the results are darkly humorous...but not good. Yet another character is a college student whose out-of-control drinking, drug use, and sexual behavior cause increasing isolation.

Short stories are not my favorite genre. While Schappell's characters are well-drawn, I think I am too old to gain much from these stories except a deep sense of sadness. If I'm going to get depressed about the state of young women, I guess I'd rather do it via a novel.

Favorite passage:
Then I forgot about it. I rarely ever dreamed about Ray. When I did, the dreams felt like gifts. I wasn't sad or angry anymore; what I felt was tenderness for the girl I'd been in the dream, the first self I'd ever really liked.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton

I started to write a summary of this book's plot, but I think I'll just's a very long book about multiple generations of a British and Australian family with an unusual number of dysfunctions. The book jumps from time to time and character to character, interspersing the narrative with examples of "fairy tales" written by one of the characters. There's a mystery to be solved, but most people in our book group had figured out the solution well before the end...or simply didn't care anymore by the time they got to the denouement.

A couple of people in our group enjoyed the book...but mostly not so much. And this time, I wasn't the only person to say it should have been shorter, much shorter.

Not recommended.

84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff

84, Charing Cross Road is a charming but slight book that presents the correspondence between New York writer Helene Hanff and a rare book store in London. In 1949, Hanff saw an ad for Marks & Co. in the Saturday Review and sent off an inquiry regarding several books she had been unable to find in New York. Frank Doel, who handled her request, became a regular correspondent and long-distance friend. With Britons still subject to rationing, Hanff felt moved to send "care" packages to the employees of Marks & Co., many of whom responded with their own letters, sparking additional friendships.

The letters trace Hanff's search for books, as well as the general outlines of her writing career (she wrote for the Ellery Queen television series, among other jobs), British and American politics, and her long-postponed plan to visit London and her friends at the bookstore. Unfortunately, Doel died before Hanff made the trip: the last letter in the book is from one of his daughters, agreeing to publication of the letters.

I have to admit that I thought 84, Charing Cross Road was an epistolary novel--and I liked it better when I was suffering under that delusion. Helene is charming as a fictional character; oddly, as an author publishing her own letters, for me she becomes somewhat too self-consciously clever and kind. Still, the book only takes about an hour to read and it's definitely worth that.

Favorite passage:
i go through life watching the english language being raped before me face. like miniver cheevy, i was born too late.
and like miniver cheevy i cough and call it fate and go on drinking.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Year We Left Home, by Jean Thompson

Jean Thompson's The Year We Left Home follows members of the Erickson family for 30 years, from 1973 to 2003. Their lives reflect societal upheavals--feminism, wars in Vietnam and Iraq, the farm crisis of the 1980s--as well as personal struggles. The story unfolds in a series of what are almost vignettes, each focusing primarily on one family member; the vignettes jump ahead in time irregularly--some chapters take place only a month after the events of the previous chapter, some as much as three years later.

Among the book's multiple narrators, Ryan Erickson feels like the central character. This may be because he is the narrator of the first chapter, which takes place at his sister Anita's wedding, or because he is the character who seems to most fully leave his hometown and thus serves as a foil for the family members who stay in small-town Iowa. Ryan is eager to get away from that milieu, and he does so, going to college and then settling down in Chicago, where he eventually achieves financial success in the high-tech world. His personal life is more problematic, and his separation from his Iowa roots is incomplete, as he invests in various properties in his home town in ways that seem designed to rescue family members in trouble.

Older sister Anita is the beautiful girl who always dreamed of being married. But she finds motherhood challenging, and her husband is a bit of a lout--a banker with a drinking problem. While she breaks out of the housewife mold, that break is as incomplete as Ryan's with his hometown.

The youngest sibling, Torrie, has one of the most interesting stories in the book. When her older siblings have all left home and she feels herself to be a victim of her over-involved mother, Torrie mounts some minor rebellions, one of which has disastrous effects. Yet Torrie is able to rise above her circumstances and achieves the most thorough intellectual break from her childhood (not without some irony, however).

Blake is the sibling who plays the smallest part in the story, overshadowed by cousin Ray (known to the family as Chip). Ray was an outsider as a child, joined the military to become "a man," and spends his years after Vietnam floating from place to place, engaging with a variety of shady people and activities.

The book's multiple narrators allow Thompson to explore a variety of social concerns, and the irregular way in which the story lurches forward reinforces the notion that change was occurring in a similarly irregular yet inexorable fashion. The downside of this structure is that the "plot" does not develop in a traditional sense: I was not surprised to learn that Thompson is known as a short story writer, as the book resembles a series of linked short stories. As a transplanted Midwesterner who was, like Ryan, a political science major who took some abuse for that choice and, like Anita, got married in 1973, much in the story resonated for me. Occasionally snarkiness about the Midwest and Midwesterners did manage to annoy me (it's okay for me to be snarky about the region but not novelists), but Thompson's empathy for her characters overrides that bias. While not a great novel, The Year We Left Home is a rewarding read.

Favorite passage:
It filled him with holy dread to stand in this place that testified to their grinding, incessant labor. How hard they had worked, and how stubbornly, every day of their lives, for their little bit of ease, little bit of pride. They had done so much. They had meant to do so much more. Imagine them slipping off to death regretting the task unfinished, the field unplowed, the child unloved. It could break your heart.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Leftovers, by Tom Perrotta

How would the people left behind respond if a Rapture-like event occurred? That is the question Tom Perrotta takes on in The Leftovers, which follows the effects of the "Sudden Departure" (the event is not considered by most to be the Rapture because it did not exclusively sweep up Christians or even believers) on the people of a suburb with the idyllic name of Mapleton.

Perrotta makes an interesting choice in focusing primarily on the Garvey family, all of whose members survived the Sudden Departure. One might surmise that their survival intact would mean the effects on them were less severe--but such is not the case. Mother Laurie, after spending months commiserating with a friend whose daughter was taken in the event, joins a cult called the Guilty Remnant. Its members dress in white, smoke constantly, follow people around town as they go about their daily activities, and do not speak--their motto is "Stop Wasting Your Breath." Son Tom, a college student, also falls into one of the many cults that spring up after the event, the Healing Hug Movement headed by Holy Wayne, whose pregnant teenage "wife" Tom ends up taking on a cross-country trip after Holy Wayne's arrest.

Daughter Jill and father Kevin, meanwhile, are struggling to maintain a normal life in the family home--and it is their struggles that provide the novel's emotional core. Kevin becomes involved with Nora, a woman whose husband and two children were both taken in the Sudden Departure. Nora is dealing with the range of profound emotions one would expect in such a situation and none of her coping strategies have proven particularly successful--including her decision to become involved with Kevin. Jill and her friend Aimee, who is crashing at the Garveys' house, are involved in group sex games, drinking, and skipping school--a fact that the dazed Kevin (who is also the mayor of Mapleton) is aware of but can't seem to cope with.

Perrotta's customary satirical humor and rather dark view of humanity are certainly on display, particularly in his depiction of the cults (not to mention Reverend Matt, who is so incensed that he was not taken in the Rapture--"I should have been first"--that he devotes his life to uncovering the sins of those who disappeared). But I found The Leftovers to be more compassionate than his earlier works (namely Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher). While Kevin, Jill, and Nora have their flaws, we empathize with them and hope that they will be able to remember "what it feels like to be happy."

Favorite passage:
The Garvey clan was like the old Soviet Union, a once mighty power that had dissolved into a bunch of weak and cranky units.

This must be Kyrgyzstan, he thought.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Vanessa Diffenbaugh has been a foster mother to teenagers, which makes her depiction of the emotional life of Victoria Jones, a girl who has recently "aged out" of the foster care system all the more believable. Victoria has been deeply scarred; after not paying her rent in the transitional house she was taken to by her social worker, she ends up living in a San Francisco park, where she tends a garden of plants she has stolen from people's yards. The plants she picks for their meanings (e.g., helenium means tears) rather than their beauty.

One day she happens upon a florist unloading her van and earns some money by carrying things for her. When the florist, Renata, discovers that Victoria can create beautiful arrangements, she gives her a job and finds her a peculiar room (essentially a closet in Renata's sister's apartment) down the street from her shop. Interspersed with stories of Victoria's present are recollections of the year that she spent in the home of foster mother and vineyard owner Elizabeth when she was 8. Clearly, this is the place that should have but didn't become Victoria's home. Meanwhile, back in the present, Victoria meets Grant, Elizabeth's nephew, at the flower market, and they become involved. He, too, is interested in the meaning of flowers--but, shockingly to Victoria, he knows an entirely different set of meanings, learned from his mother, Elizabeth's estranged sister. The two engage in a long process of research and debate to arrive at a set of shared meanings. There is also an element of what is almost magical realism, as Victoria becomes known as a florist whose can choose a bloom that will reshape lives and relationships.

As the stories of Victoria past and present unfold, Diffenbaugh explores the damage done by betrayal, loss, and a life lived without love or tenderness. I hope it is not giving too much away to say that the ending is more positive, focusing on the healing power of love and meaningful work. Perhaps it's a reflection on my cynicism that the damage seems more believable than the redemption. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the book, particularly the role that flowers and their meanings played in Victoria's life.

Favorite passage:
Chamomile. . . energy in adversity.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Turn of Mind, by Alice LaPlante

Dr. Jennifer White is a renowned orthopedic surgeon, a specialist in delicate hand surgery. She has been forced into retirement because she has Alzheimer's. As the book opens, she is also the prime suspect in the murder of her neighbor and best friend Amanda, who was found dead from a blow to the head, with the fingers on one hand neatly amputated.

The book is told from Jennifer's perspective, and LaPlante does a wonderful job of conveying what might be happening in the mind of someone with advanced Alzheimer's. Sometimes she recognizes her children, Mark and Fiona, sometimes she doesn't. She has to be told over and over that Amanda is dead. She often remembers events from her past--sometimes believing them to have only recently happened. These recollections make clear that her relationship with Amanda was not complicated, at least in part by the fact that Amanda knew too much about Jennifer's marriage to James, long since dead.

The idea of a mystery in which a person with Alzheimer's is either the perpetrator or a key witness is an intriguing one. Unfortunately, I didn't find this particular mystery--who killed Amanda and why--very interesting. Nonetheless, the look into Jennifer's mind makes the book well worth reading whether the mystery works or not.

Favorite passages:
To love and to grieve and to be unable to confide that grief. It is a lonely place to reside.

Even now, one is leaning over my chair, hand outstretched, trying to pat me on the head. Pet me. No. Stop. I am not a wild thing to be soothed by touch. I will not be soothed.

The room is full of faces I recognize, and if I don't love them, at least I know their names, and that is more than enough. perhaps this is my revelation? Perhaps this is heaven? To wander among a multitude and have a name for each.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

This Beautiful Life, by Helen Schulman

It's hard to see a novel titled This Beautiful Life without thinking the title must be ironic. And, indeed, while the Bergamot family enjoys many advantages, the first member we meet--mother Lizzie--seems to be having difficulty finding a place for herself since the family relocated to Manhattan from Ithaca. Driven to succeed in his new job--a high-level administrative position at a New York university (modeled on Columbia, I think)--father Richard has drifted away from the family. The children--teenager Jake and kindergartener Coco--have both found friends for themselves at their private school. Early in the book, both are at parties--Coco at a sleepover at the Plaza for a friend's birthday and Jake at the home of a girl whose parents are out of town.

Making out with the 14-year-old who hosted the party leads to the events that cause the nearly complete unraveling of the family. The morning after the party, the girl, Daisy Cavanaugh, sends Jake a pornographic video of herself. Shocked, he forwards the message to a friend. The inevitable happens--the video goes viral. By Monday morning, the proverbial shit has hit the fan. The head of school calls Jake's parents--Richard is in an important meeting and cannot/will not leave, so Lizzie goes in alone. The headmaster requires Lizzie and Jake to watch the video in his presence--an indicator of how badly everyone involved handles the problem.

While there are some small surprises as the family deals with the fallout, most of the consequences are predictable. By telling us at the end of the book that Jake's young adult life does not go well, Schulman does not even let readers consider the possible outcomes and how they might be achieved.

This Beautiful Life is certainly a cautionary tale for parents (talk to your kids about privacy and appropriate responses to unwanted sexting), but as a novel, I didn't find it compelling.

Favorite passage:
Sex as a wild and wooly continent, there to be navigated and explored, had been usurped by her son's contemporaries, just as she supposed she and her cohort had once done to their parents--although perhaps a tad less dramatically. Liz thought. Generation after generation of teenagers invading this mysterious and previously "adults only" floating island, laying down the flag of ownership and declaring the previous inhabitants obsolete.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Most Dangerous Thing, by Laura Lippman

I am a fan of Laura Lippman. I love her Tess Monaghan series and have enjoyed several of her stand-alone mystery-thrillers. Unfortunately, The Most Dangerous Thing doesn't live up to her usual standard. My first problem with the book was that it uses a tired literary device--the group of adults who, as children, did something terrible that has haunted them and which they now must work through or face dire consequences (in this case, prompted by the literal death of one of the group members in the first chapter). Lippman adds a twist to the story--the children's parents also have a shared secret, and about half of the book is told from their perspective. She also uses a stylistic twist, one that seems to be gaining popularity--the use of first person plural for some of the book.

Despite these twists, the book just isn't very suspenseful or interesting--I simply didn't care what the real story was concerning what happened on the night of the hurricane. And by the time I got to the book-ending revelation of "the most dangerous thing"--I had forgotten that was the title and found Lippman's ominous sounding declaration almost laughable.

Not recommended.

Favorite passage:
Allowing one's self to be forgiven is just as hard as forgiving. Harder in some ways. Because to be forgiven, one has to first admit to being at fault.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Where the God of Love Hangs Out, by Amy Bloom

In reviewing Where the God of Love Hangs Out for The New York Times, novelist Francine du Plessix Gray describes the book has having an "upbeat sassiness" and "saucy vitality"--what? While Bloom certainly infuses humor into the stories, individually and collectively they left me feeling melancholy. The God of love evidently hangs out with some very sad and deeply conflicted people.

The book includes two four-story cycles, as well as four stand-alone stories. One cycle is about Claire and William, two professors married to other people. In the first story, they begin an affair (with their spouses in the same house with them), which languishes in stories two and three as both have health problems (William is obese, and Bloom gives a not-entirely-appetizing description of the challenges of sex with a very heavy man); in story four, they are married--happily--but William soon dies, leaving Clare bereft. The second cycle has many characters but is essentially about Julia and her stepson Lionel, who have sex the night after his father/her husband's funeral. This disastrous event scars both of them, but they eventually find their way back to a familial relationship--and then Julia is hit by a car and dies. Yes, so saucy!

The four stand-alone stories are also sad. "Between Here and Here" begins with the sentence "I had always planned to kill my father"--and you can understand why, when that father is so unmoved by his wife of many year's death that he doesn't think a memorial service is even worth discussing with his children. "Permafrost" may be the saddest story of all. Hospital social worker Frances is working with the family of Beth, a 13-year-old who has contracted necrotizing fasciitis. The parents are not doing well, and Frances is worried that Beth's will be Googling forms of suicide before she even gets home--and yet it is Frances whose life seems to shrivel over the course of the next decade, while Beth rises above her circumstances and her family. Perhaps I need not synopsize the remaining two stories (although the favorite passage is from one of them and I think you'll get the drift).

Bloom is a talented writer, the characters she creates are three-dimensional, and the situations she put them in are just unusual enough to capture your interest. So it's not that the stories aren't good. They're just so damn sad.

Favorite passage:
I don't miss the dead less, I miss them more. I miss the tall pines around Lake Pleasant, I miss the brown-and-gray cobblestones on West Cedar Street, I miss the red-tailed hawks that fly so often in pairs. I miss the cheap red wine in a box and I miss the rum and Coke. I miss Anne's wet gold hair drying as we sat on the fire escape. I miss the hot-dog luau and driving to dance lessons after breakfast at Bruegger's Bagels. I miss the cold mornings on the farm, when the handle of the bucket bit into my small hands and my feet slid over the frozen dew. I miss the hot grease spattering around the felafel balls and the urgent clicking of Hebrow. I miss the new green leaves shaking in the June rain. . . . I miss every piece of my dead. Every piece is stacked high like cordwood within me, and my heart, both sides, and all four parts, is their reliquary.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Submission, by Amy Waldman

Amy Waldman's first novel, The Submission, is a complex and tragic story about the American psyche post-9/11. As the book opens, the jury named to choose a design for the memorial to be built at Ground Zero is debating the two final designs. Claire Burwell, who is representing 9/11 families, advocates for The Garden, a design where, she believes, the bereaved can "stumble on joy." She eventually prevails, and the jury eagerly awaits the revelation of who designed The Garden. To their astonishment and chagrin, the designer is a Muslim-American architect Mohammad ("Mo") Khan.

The news of this development leaks out, and the response is predictable--but the paths traveled by the numerous characters with which Waldman populates the book are not. Claire is one of the central characters--as a wealthy widow who lives in Chappaqua, she is hardly representative of many of the bereaved families. Nowhere is this clearer than through the character of Sean Gallagher, the ne'er-do-well brother of a fallen New York firefighter, who has found his metier leading a survivors' group; he is dead set against a memorial designed by a Muslim and organizes a variety of protests against The Garden. Claire's life is also far from that of another widow, Asma Anwar; she and her husband, a janitor in the World Trade Center, were unauthorized Bangladeshi migrants. Left with a baby born after her husband was killed and unable to speak English, Asma refuses to return to Bangladesh, still clinging to the American Dream. Living in a single room in another couple's apartment, while hiding the fact that she received a $1 million settlement from the government, Asma follows the controversy over the memorial with interest,

As the controversy grows, Claire is frustrated that Mo will not answer any of the questions that begin to arise, many prompted by a series of inflammatory columns by journalist Alyssa Spier: Was the inspiration for his design an Islamic garden? Did he intend the garden as a paradise for martyrs? As her support wavers, Mo, a secular Muslim whose personality is not well suited for the public eye, is stunned by the response. He struggles to deal with the fallout, becoming something of a nomad in his efforts to avoid the press.

These characters are deeply flawed, and yet none is completely without redeeming qualities (on the other hand, there are minor characters who do lack any redeeming qualities). Their struggles reflect how difficult it is to deal with powerful emotions, ideas about right and wrong, and ambiguity. Occasionally, scenes involving debates/meetings go on a bit too long, but the ideas under discussion are worth our consideration. And the story captures a moment in time that we have not yet, unfortunately, left behind.

While I have read a number of novels that deal with 9/11, Amy Waldman's is, for me, by far the most successful.

Favorite passages:
In architecture, space was a material to be shaped, even created. For these men, the material was silence. Silence like water in which you could drown, the absence of talk as constricting as the absence of air. Silence that sucked at your will until you came spluttering to the surface confessing your sins or inventing them.

She had been shaped, was being shaped, not only by those she met on her journey but also by how she lost them.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Borrower, by Rebecca Makkai

Lucy Hull is a children's librarian in Hannibal, Missouri. Ian Drake is one of her best customers, a ten-year-old boy who loves to read. When his mother limits his reading to books "with the breath of God in them," Lucy helps Ian smuggle other books out of the library, checking them out on her own card after he hides them in his clothing. When she learns that his parents have enrolled Ian in a youth group run by Glad Heart Ministries, an organization "dedicated to the rehabilitation of sexually confused brothers and sisters in Christ," she becomes deeply concerned, remembering a high school friend who committed suicide over gender identity issues. When she discovers that Ian has slept in the library after running away from home the previous evening, she somewhat inexplicably loads him in her car and starts driving.

Their days on the road take them to Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Vermont; along the way, they stay with Lucy's Russian immigrant parents, as well as an associate of her somewhat shady father. As Lucy tries to figure out what exactly she is going to do with Ian, she is also grappling with understanding her family's history of rebellion and retreat. While she was always suspicious of her father's stories of his life in Russia, she is stunned when his associate Leo gives her a radically different version of the story, one that calls into question the family mythology.

The Borrower is full of allusions to both adult and children's literature. Some are subtle (I'm sure I missed many), but others are obvious. For example, Makkai several times presents passages written in the style of a well-known children's book (If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, Goodnight Moon, Alice in Wonderland, etc.). She also references such classics as The Great Gatsby, Lolita, the Oz series, Huckleberry Finn, and many more. Deciphering these references is one of the most enjoyable parts of reading the book.

The Borrower clearly has a message about acceptance, tolerance, and the power of reading. What Makkai is saying through Lucy's ongoing ruminations about her family history and her own ill-advised decisions is less obvious. Because both Lucy and her father chose to act out their protests in ineffectual if not counterproductive ways, does it mean that Lucy should simply give up the idea of helping others/changing the world to simply "stamp and scan"? I think not, and I can't really believe that Makkai does either. But the book might lead you to think she does.

Favorite passage:
It was the universal revelation of adolescence, that the adults around you do not have all the answers--and like all children growing slowly and painfully into their mature selves, he'd realize it again and again over the next few years.

It gave me pause, for a moment, that all my reference points were fiction, that all my narratives were lies.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

What Alice Forgot, by Liane Moriarty

One day, Alice Love falls off her bike in spin class, hitting her head hard on her way to the floor. When she comes to, she has forgotten the past ten years of her life. Instead of the 29-year-old happily married and newly pregnant, slightly flaky and sedentary but fun-loving young woman she thinks she is, she is a 39-year-old separated mother of three, thin, driven, uptight, and at odds with her sister Elisabeth, who is struggling with infertility. She doesn't know why she is getting a divorce or why her sister (and a few other old acquaintances) don't seem to like her anymore. She doesn't recognize her children and has no idea what they like to do or eat, when they go to bed, etc. Nor does she know whether she has slept with the man who appears to be her new boyfriend, the principal of her children's school. She knows that someone named Gina had an important role in the ten lost years, but she doesn't know what that role was.

Alice's story unfolds in a third-person narrative from Alice's perspective, but also includes two first-person elements that provide other views on Alice's predicament and introduce subplots of their own. One of these elements is a series of diary-style entries written by Elisabeth and addressed to her therapist, who is helping her with the psychological toll that infertility has taken on her. The other is a series of letters written by Alice and Elisabeth's adoptive grandmother Frannie to her long-dead fiance. Frannie is first irritated by and then falls in love with a new resident at her assisted living facility.

I liked the premise of the book, which sparks reflection: What about your current life would be surprising if you suddenly woke up with no memory of the past ten years? Would you like yourself? How would you feel about having certain people falling out of your life? Might you recognize influences that shaped where you are today, without your perceiving those influences as they occurred?

Moriarty has packed the book with quirky characters, and some provide genuinely funny moments. The book seems long, however, and perhaps a good editor might have encouraged some judicious trimming of characters and scenes (perhaps Frannie's subplot could have gone entirely, as it is not as compelling as the two sisters' stories). Moriarity's choice of a happy ending for everyone seems a bit contrived, although perhaps she intends to convey a message that no matter the challenges faced and missteps made, you can build the life you want. Despite these quibbles, I enjoyed What Alice Forgot.

Favorite passage: None (this book is really about the premise and the plot--the writing itself is competent but not memorable)

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the Attic is the story of Japanese picture brides who came to California in the early years of the twentieth century. But forget whatever image of a novel that sentence conjures up for you. Otsuka's book is unlike any other novel I can recollect.

What makes the book so unusual? Otsuka made the unusual choice of first person plural as the voice. While this is the third book I've read this year that employed first person plural, this is the first case in which it felt like the right choice. The way in which Otsuka uses first person plural also means that there is no individual character development; rather, we learn about the group. Similarly, while Otsuka arranges the book in chronological order, it does not have a plot in the traditional sense. In each of eight sections, Otsuka presents what I can only describe as a rush of sentences about how various women experienced the topic of the section. For example, the chapter "Babies" begins with the following passage:

We gave birth under oak trees, in summer, in 113-degree heat. We gave birth beside woodstoves in one-room shacks on the coldest nights of the year. We gave birth on windy islands in the Delta, six months after we arrived, and the babies were tiny, and translucent, and after three days they died. We gave birth nine months after we arrived to perfect babies with full heads of black hair. We gave birth in dusty vineyard camps in Elk Grove and Florin.

Otsuka ends the section titled "Whites" with a torrent of questions that begins:

. . . without us, what would they do? Who would pick the strawberries from their fields? Who would get the fruit down from their trees? Who would wash their carrots? Who would scrub their toilets? Who would mend their garments? Who would iron their shirts? Who would fluff their pillows?

It is a measure of the hardships these women experienced that the removal of Japanese Americans from their homes during World War II seems not so much a separate tragedy as a piece with the rest of their lives. However, Otsuka also turns our perception of that event on its head by writing the final section of the book from the perspective of white residents of the West Coast communities whose Japanese residents were interned.

I doubt I would enjoy reading too many books written in the style Otsuka uses here, but I admire her innovation in writing a novel about a group of women and their experiences as immigrants to the United States.

Favorite passage:
. . . the rest of us would lower our heads and smooth down the skirts of our kimonos and walk down the gangplank and step out into the still warm day. This is America, we would say to ourselves, there is no need to worry. And we would be wrong.

The School of Essential Ingredients, by Erica Bauermeister

In The School of Essential Ingredients, Erica Bauermeister uses a somewhat overworked structure--she creates a group of people, in this case a cooking class, and devotes a chapter to each person, exploring the person's issues/problems and then revealing how being part of the group helps them resolve those issues. Here, the group includes chef Lillian, who found comfort in food when her father left her mother and her mother lost herself in reading; Tom, who is recovering from his wife's death from breast cancer; Claire, who has lost her identity in the daily demands of caring for two small children; Antonia, a kitchen designer faced with recalcitrant clients; Chloe, a young woman so clumsy and uncertain she cannot keep a job or sustain a relationship; Ian, the nerd who yearns for love; Carl and Helen, whose "perfect" marriage was damaged by Helen's affair; and Isabelle, an elderly woman in the early stages of dementia.

The book is predictable, and yet I enjoyed it. Perhaps it's because I like reading about (and eating and preparing) food; perhaps it's because Bauermeister writes so gracefully; perhaps I was simply ready for a sweet story with a positive view of humanity. Whatever the reason, I liked The School of Essential Ingredients and I am taking to heart the notion that "we're all just ingredients . . . What matters is the grace with which you cook the meal."

Favorite passages:
Lillian loved best the moment before she turned on the lights. She would stand in the restaurant kitchen doorway, rain-soaked air behind her, and let the smells come to her--ripe sourdough yeast, sweet-dirt coffee, and garlic, mellowing as it lingered. Under them, more elusive, stirred the faint essence of fresh meat, raw tomatoes, cantaloupe, water on lettuce. Lillian breathed in, feeling the smells move about and through her . . .

How strange, she thought. These people here, they looked at her and thought she was alone, she whose children were with her even in her dreams.

"Our bodies carry our memories of them [loved ones], in our muscles, in our skin, in our bones. My children are right here." She pointed to the inside curve of her elbow. "Where I held them when they were babies. Even if there comes a time when I don't know who they are anymore, I believe I will feel them here."

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Mentors, Muses, and Monsters, edited by Elizabeth Benedict

The subtitle of this book, 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives, describes well its content--except that some of the chapters are about books or places rather than people. Still, most of the authors--some extremely well known (Jane Smiley, Joyce Carol Oates, Mary Gordon, Michael Cunningham, Denis Johnson, Anita Shreve, Julia Glass), others less so--do write about the people who most influenced them as writers.

Many of the authors write about teachers. For example, Alexander Chee writes about Annie Dillard, who taught him that "while I had spoken English all my life, there was actually very little I knew about it." He recounts her "fugues" on writing, as well as some of the exercises she assigned, the clothes she wore, and the way she smoked a cigarette and drank coffee from a thermos. By the time he had finished studying with Dillard, Chee "wanted to be her."

Julia Glass describes how she yearned for an editor who would be a taskmaster, someone along the lines of Maxwell Perkins. Yet, when her actual editor turns out to be a thoroughly nice poet named Deb, who "resists the easy cynicism that preys on most people involved in 'creative' pursuits" and is, in fact, the perfect collaborator for Glass.

Other writers pay tribute to writers or books who inspired them. Cheryl Strayed reflects on the importance Alice Munro held for her; Strayed studied "how she moved her characters in and out of a room, how she conveyed an emotion or a moment just so." When Strayed finally has the opportunity to meet Munro, she is unable to speak to her. Some inspirations are unexpected: Martha Southgate cites Harriet the Spy and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay as books that shaped her work.

Of course, not every influence was entirely positive. Lily Tuck's description of the tutelage of Gordon Lish puts him squarely in the monster category (at least in my view), where I also regretfully place Susan Sontag on the basis of Sigrid Nunez's essay. Even from "monsters," however, much was learned.

I found this a fascinating look into the sources of inspiration and the way in which writers read. After reading how these writers dissect a passage from a favorite writer makes me all too aware of how blind I generally am to the subtleties of the writing in the books I read. I'm inspired to read more closely (although perhaps lacking the skill to do so), be more aware of the author's work as I read.

Favorite passages:
You could think that your voice as a writer would just emerge naturally, all on its own, with no help whatsoever, but you'd be wrong. What I saw on the page was that hte voice is in fact trapped, nervous, lazy. Even, and in my case most especially, amnesiac. And that it had to be cut free.

Go up to the place in the bookstore where your books will go, she said. Walk right up and find your place on the shelf. Put your finger there, and then go every time.

Alexander Chee, "Annie Dillard and the Writing Life" the world's grays and sepias, in its shadows and lonely nights, a fine beauty is visible to the eye that stays open.

Denis Johnson, "On Fat City"

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Long Drive Home, by Will Allison

Driving home with his daughter in the back seat, Glen Bauer flips off a cop, has a confrontation with an armed man in an SUV, is nearly hit by a teenager in a Jaguar convertible, and then in a snit causes an accident that kills that same teenager and might well have killed himself and his daughter. Is it any wonder that he lies about the circumstances of the accident? Not at all.

Given Glen's impulsiveness, perhaps some of the ways in which his life steadily deteriorates after the accident are also not surprising. Yet they are painful, not only because they hurt him and his daughter, but because they are self-inflicted (with help from his wife).

Long Drive Home is a sad commentary on human nature. Unfortunately, the writing is not good enough or the insights compelling enough to make it worth subjecting yourself to this story.

End of the Mystery Binge

So I've finished the stack of mysteries on my nightstand and am moving on to more serious reading (maybe). The last three in the stack were all decent reads:

Betrayal of Trust, by J.A. Jance. Jance writes four different series (note to James Patterson: she writes them herself!), which seems to keep each series fresh. Betrayal of Trust is the latest entry in the J.P. Beaumont series, her first (and still my favorite). J.P. and his wife Mel are called in to investigate when the governor finds what appears to be a snuff film on her step-grandson's phone--and things quickly go from bad to worse in a story of cyberbullying, sexual abuse, and amorality.

The Silent Girl, by Tess Gerritsen. Gerritsen has a vivid and dark imagination, and in this entry in the Rizzoli and Isles series (which bears little resemblance to the tv series it has spawned), she gives that imagination full rein. The case opens with a Chinatown tour group's discovery of a severed hand. Soon Jane and Maura are investigating not only this murder but a 19-year-old murder-suicide (or so it appeared) at a restaurant in Chinatown. Chinese folk tales, a mysterious monkey-like being, and an martial arts master all play into the case.

Broken Prey, by John Sandford. Like J.A. Jance, Sandford writes more than one series and an occasional stand-alone book. Here, he returns to the Lucas Davenport series but with a twist. The bodies of two girls are found by a construction crew; the girls' disappearance was the first case Lucas investigated as a plainclothes cop (not officially promoted to detective yet). Half the book provides background on the investigation in the 1980s, introducing us to a younger and much less experienced Lucas than we have met before. The second half of the book describes the investigation following discovery of the girl's body--an investigation that proves deadly for one of Lucas's long-time friends. It's a sad story, with some foreshadowing that makes me wonder when Lucas's daughter Letty will implode!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Flash and Bones, by Kathy Reichs

Flash and Bones is something of a comeback for the Temperance Brennan series--a straightforward mystery with just one setting, Tempe's hometown of Charlotte, NC. In a Q&A at the end of the book, author Kathy Reichs talks about having an A story line, a B story line, and a C story line in her books. The A story line here is a body discovered at the landfill next to the NASCAR racetrack, covered in asphalt and sealed in a rusted barrel. The B story is a decade-old missing persons case that Tempe gets drawn into when the brother of one of the missing people comes into the medical examiner's office to ask if the victim found in the landfill might be his sister. The C story, according to Reichs, is Tempe's love life--while there's a new man (disgraced cop and head of racetrack security Cotton Galimore) to whom she's attracted in this book, not much really happens on that front, and her old love interests are mostly missing from the book. However, there is also a story line revolving around Tempe's almost-ex-husband Pete and his impending marriage to the ditzy Summer, which adds comic relief.

Another way of identifying the A, B, and C stories in Flash and Bones would be to look not at the cases, but the topics that are central to the story--here they are NASCAR, domestic extremism (in the form of militias), and biotoxins. As usual, Reichs weaves a lot of information into the narrative.

One of the things that distinguishes Reichs's books from some other mysteries is that the reader can actually figure out who the villain is; occasionally, this makes one wonder why Tempe has to be nearly killed before she figures it out, but at least there is no need for a long explanation of why the solution to the mystery came totally out of left field.

Overall, Flash and Bones is an enjoyable mystery.

Favorite passage:
"Ever hear of alienation of affectation?"

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese

Many reviews of Cutting for Stone have described it as "sprawling," and it is certainly is a very long book with subject matter that covers a great deal of space and time. Action occurs in India, Ethiopia, and the United States and covers many decades.

The first 100+ pages of the book center on the day in 1954 when twins Marion and Shiva Stone are born in Ethiopia to an Indian nun and a British doctor. Their mother dies in childbirth and their father immediately disappears. The boys have the good fortune to be adopted by two loving doctors at the mission hospital (known as Missing, a mispronunciation of Mission), ob-gyn Hema and internist turned surgeon Ghosh. They are raised alongside Genet, the daughter of one of the household workers. Marion, who is the book's narrator, is from an early age enamored with Genet, an attraction that will cause him major problems over the course of his life.

Growing up essentially in a hospital, the twins see early on the fragility of life, the power of both medical knowledge and emotional support for the afflicted and their families. Ghosh begins teaching Marion his diagnostic skills from an early age, while Shiva takes a particular interest in the gynecological problem of fistulas, common in Africa. These interests shape their futures, as Marion goes to medical school, while Shiva, who is brilliant but not academically oriented, becomes something of an apprentice to Hema. When Genet is involved in a hijacking, her roommate implicates Marion (who is innocent), and he must flee the country. He ends up at a hospital in New York that serves the poor, where he eventually meets his father and learns the history that caused his father to abandon the twins. More ominously, Marion once again encounters Genet, who has just been released from prison and is suffering from tuberculosis. Marion finally loses his virginity (well into his 30s) to Genet, and a family crisis ensues.

This is the first time I have written about a book after we discussed it at Novel Conversations, and I must report that everyone in the group liked the book better than I did. While everyone reported having trouble getting into the book for the first 100 or more pages and found some of the details of medical procedures and conditions difficult to read, they all eventually came to appreciate the character development, the details about life in Ethiopia and the counterpoint of life in New York City, and the insight into Ethiopian history and politics. While these were strengths of the book, I felt it was too long, with too many details about the boys' childhood in Ethiopia; the themes of loss and exile could have been more powerfully conveyed if the book had "sprawled" less. Had I not been reading the book for book group, I'm not sure I would have finished it. But I didn't hate it--when we graded the book at the end of our discussion, I gave it a B- (it also got two As and three Bs).

Favorite passage:
Superorganism. A biologist coined that word for our giant African ant colonies, claiming that consciousness and intelligence resided not in the individual ant but in the collective ant mind. The trail of red taillights stretching to the horizon as day broke around us made me think of that term. Order and purpose must reside somewhere other than within each vehicle. That morning I heard the hum, the respiration, of the superorganism. It's a sound I believe that only the new immigrant hears, but not for long. By the time I learned to say "Six-inch number seven on rye with Swiss hold the lettuce," the sound, too, was gone. It became part of what the mind would label silence. You were now subsumed into the superorganism.

(I like the idea conveyed in this passage, which also illustrates some of the strengths and weaknesses of the writing. Measuring time in terms of how long it takes to learn to order at a deli--brilliant. Switching from first person to second in the last sentence--not so much.)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness was recommended by my son who is currently working on a Ph.D. in Japanese literature. Although I rarely read science fiction, I took up his challenge and read this winner of multiple prizes, in which Le Guin asks readers to consider how culture and personal relations might be different if people were androgynous, sexually active for only a few days per month, and capable of both siring and bearing children.

Genly Ai is a native of earth serving as an envoy to the planet Gethen for the interplanetary coalition known as the Ekumen. Following a team of scouts who landed on the planet (known in the Ekumen as Winter due to its frigid climate) incognito, Ai is trying to convince the nations of Gethen to join the Ekumen. He begins his work in the nation Karhide, where shifgrethor (the quality of face or pride) underlies all social authority. He has been working with the Prime Minister, Estraven, who is soon banished from the kingdom by the monarch Argaven. The book traces the journeys of Ai and Estraven to the neighboring (and unfriendly) nation of Orgoreyn, with a markedly different structure of government and culture (bearing some resemblance to a socialist or communist state--the book was written in 1969), and back to Karhide. Orgoreyn's politics are equally treacherous, however, and Ai finds himself in serious difficulties, which only Estraven can help him understand and escape. As they travel the treacherous ice fields of Gethen, Ai explores the developing understanding between the androgynous Gethen and the male native of Earth.

While Ai's voice is dominant, the book also includes chapters from Estraven's perspective, as well as "ethnographic reports" from the scouts who studied Gethen before Ai's arrival. These reports do add to the reader's understanding of the cultures of Gethen. On the other hand, the chapters from Estraven's perspective, while providing insight not available elsewhere, undercut the conceit that the book is a report from Ai to the Ekumen.

On the positive side, Le Guin creates two complex Gethenian cultures and does cause readers to reflect on the role of gender and sexual desire/gamesmanship on culture and on personal relationships--worthwhile reflections. On the other hand, I found the section describing the journey across the ice to be too long and tedious. The book itself is a reasonable length, but I could have done with less of this trek.

For me, reading a novel set in a totally imagined world was challenging--I found myself spending so much time/energy trying to figure out the geography, the power relations, the language, etc., that I was not focusing on the ideas LeGuin was dealing with. While I tried to "let go" and read for the big picture rather than the small one, I was only partially successful. The book begins with a very interesting (and much cited, according to the aforementioned son) introduction in which Le Guin discusses her view of science fiction, stressing that it is descriptive rather than predictive, that the future in science fiction is a metaphor. Since I have never thought much about science fiction (other than to think it would never be my favorite genre), I feel challenged to test my understanding of her ideas by reading some other scifi.

Favorite passages:
I'll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.

It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end. (Okay, it's a bit aphoristic, but I still like it.)

Light is the left hand of darkness . . . how did it go? Light, dark. Fear, courage. Cold, warmth. Female, male. It is yourself, Therem. Both and one. A shadow on snow.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Tallgrass, by Sandra Dallas

Tallgrass is narrated by adolescent Rennie Stroud, who finds herself the only child left at home on her family's southeastern Colorado sugar beet farm. Her brother Buddy has enlisted to fight in World War II, and her sister has moved to Denver to work in the defense industry. Meanwhile, Japanese Americans are being brought to live at the Tallgrass internment camp (a fictionalized version of the Amache camp) just down the road from the Stroud farm.

The community of Ellis, Colorado, does not show its best side as the Japanese Americans arrive. Many businesses put up signs saying they will not serve Japanese, people harass the new residents as they get off the train, and a trio of loathsome lay-abouts go farther than mere harassment. The situation gets even worse when one of Rennie's friends is raped and murder, with many in the community suspecting someone from Tallgrass must be responsible.

In contrast to many others in the community, Rennie's father chooses to treat the Japanese Americans as he would any other neighbors. While Rennie and her mother experience some conflict about the family's relationship with the camp, they eventually come around. The family dynamic is one of the book's strongest points.

Tallgrass is a well-intentioned book--Dallas wrote it out of concern that (1) people did not know enough about this chapter in U.S. history and (2) events at Guantanamo Bay forced her to consider that we might be repeating past mistakes. Unfortunately, it is not very effective as a novel--the characters are too clearly "good" or "evil," and the plot is predictable. The novel begins "The summer I was thirteen, the Japanese came to Ellis," suggesting that events are being remembered by Rennie as an adult--but that retrospective view is not used to any advantage. In fact, we are reminded of it so sparingly that when we read a sentence like "Some would live there for three years, until V-J day," it seems out of place.

There are much better books--fiction and nonfiction--about the internment (When the Emperor Was Divine and A Fence Away from Freedom to name just two). I would recommend reading them and skipping Tallgrass.

Favorite passage:
When I was little, I'd told Mom that if there were a fire, I wasn't sure whether Granny would save me or the quilts. Mom had warned me to be careful with matches.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Mystery Binge Continues

I've been continuing my mystery binge, but I thought I had nothing to say about the recent titles until I realized today that the last three books I've read had something odd in common. All feature mystery-solving women who are not police officers, private investigators, lawyers, or pathologists but are married to lawmen. Jan Burke's Irene Kelly (Disturbance) is a reporter; her husband is a police detective. Earlene Fowler's Benni Ortiz (Spider Web) is a museum curator; her husband is the chief of police. Susan Wittig Albert's China Bayles (Mourning Gloria) owns an herb store (although she is a retired lawyer); her husband is a PI and college professor teaching criminal justice. All of the women do things that might be described as, well, stupid, putting themselves in danger before solving the crime at hand (although in this particular title in Fowler's series, Benni is more concerned with a personal mystery than the sniper case plaguing her husband's department--but she unwittingly solves the case anyway).

I can see why a mystery author gives her protagonist a career that is not traditional for sleuths (although I guess an argument could be made for a journalist being a crime-solver)--making China the owner of an herb store, for example, allows Albert to share a lot of information about herbs, in which she is clearly very interested. But why do they give their characters husbands in law enforcement? Is it just to provide a source of conflict? Or is there a more insidious underlying message--an untrained woman is a better crime-solver than a top-notch male investigator? Or are they trying to write an updated "damsel-in-distress" tale? I'm looking for answers!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Bright Before Us, by Katie ARnold-Ratliff

I was surprised to find that Bright Before Us is something of a mirror image of To Be Sung Underwater, which I wrote about in my last entry. Bright Before Us is written by a woman, from the viewpoint of a male protagonist, a man who is caught between his present life as a teacher and husband and his memories of an earlier love. Hmmm.

There are some significant differences, however. Francis Mason is only 23, and he was married to the past love he's pining for only a year or so before the events described in the book. And Francis's issues make Judith Whitman seem like a model of mental health.

As the book opens, Francis, two parent chaperones, and his second-graders are doing a field study at the beach on a Friday afternoon. Then some of the students stumble on a body, and Francis completely loses his composure, screaming and sobbing as the children watch in horror. When Francis gets home that night, he lies to his wife Greta, telling her that the students saw the woman jump from the Golden Gate Bridge; the next day, he tells her the woman was his former girlfriend (Greta doesn't know they were married), Nora. He medicates himself and sleeps through Sunday; Monday, he returns to school, still over-medicated and clearly not long for the classroom--though he manages to do some further damage to the children in his care before he takes his leave.

As Francis drives his present life into the ditch, we also read his recollections of his relationship with Nora, which he managed to destroy just hours after they married. While his childhood was clearly difficult and shaped his adult persona, it's difficult to have sympathy for Francis, who makes bad decision followed by bad decision, often fueled by alcohol or medication. Though on the book's last page Francis claims, "I will change," it's difficult to believe his destructive personality and inability to maintain a relationship will truly change. In fact, one feels dread for his unborn child, who seems almost assured of become yet another generation damaged by his parents.

Arnold-Ratliff writes beautifully. Perhaps I enjoyed To Be Sung Underwater more because the main character was more relatable to me (female, not fresh out of college). Perhaps had Francis been less callow, he would have evoked more (well, any) sympathy from me. I'd be interested to hear if this book resonates more with readers not eligible for AARP membership. Still, I'll definitely read Arnold-Ratliff's next book to see how she follows this debut novel.

Favorite passages:
I secured a job in the struggling district with unsettling ease, and began looking for holes in the prescribed curriculum that I could fill with art, the People's History, the teaching of tolerance. At home, I practiced finger painting, free-association writing, explosive science experiments, a segment on cooking. I swore I would take my students outside no matter the season; we would do a unit on international sports, like jai alai and cricket. I would teach them the silly camp songs of my young--Fish and chips and vinegar, vinegar, vinegar. I stood in front of the medicine cabinet mirror and practiced my enthusiastic lectures, my voice low so Greta wouldn't hear me from the bedroom. I perfected faces to use when they spoke, so they would know that I was really, truly listening to them.

The story for me to know is the one I made, crafted from the raw materials of failure. I pulled at the tethers of my life, resisting them like a child. I built that story with every word I used to wound, every lie I erected.

Friday, August 12, 2011

To Be Sung Underwater, by Tom McNeal

Your first love can have a strong hold on your imagination. And when things go badly in "real life," that first love can start to exert a pull that becomes irresistible. That is the situation in which Judith Whitman finds herself. As a teenager in Nebraska, living with her father after her parents have separated, she fell in love with local boy Willy Blunt in the summer after her senior year in high school. Willy was funny and passionate and introduced Judith to the pleasures of the Midwestern landscape and making love. She even agreed to marry him...but then she went off to Stanford and began to enjoy a different life. Soon enough, she's marrying preppy Malcolm.

Now it's 25 years later. Judith has had a successful job as a film editor, though things are not going particularly well with her current job. She suspects her banker husband is having an affair with his assistant. And she admits that she's never felt as close to her only daughter, Camille, as she thinks she should; now that Camille is a teenager, their relationship is even more troubled. Rather than engaging with these problems, Judith instead starts to think obsessively about Willy. She moves her old bedroom set where they first made love to a storage unit, where she spends more and more time sleeping and rereading the books she enjoyed as a teen (somewhat reminiscent of the crazy mother's retreat to a storage unit in Bee Season).

Finally, Judith reaches out to Willy. Since the Prologue makes it clear that they do meet again, it's not revealing anything to say that she returns to Nebraska to see him. What happen there should be discovered as you read.

As I was reading, I kept thinking "I can't believe this was written by a man," both because Judith is so well drawn in both her teen years and as she approaches middle age (sympathetic without being entirely likable) and because the story is so essentially romantic. Willy and Judith's father are also fully realized characters, though Judith's husband Malcolm is a bit of a cardboard cutout, more foil for Willy than real person.

Can you redeem your life by returning to a simpler--perhaps purer--version of yourself? Tom McNeal invites you to reflect on that question in this well-written and -plotted novel.

Favorite passage:
On these occasions Judith would always wonder whether Patrick Guest had found a place in the world that honored his ability to do things carefully and well, and whether, too, he'd found a marriage that hadn't depleted that secret cache of hopefulness he'd been accruing all the way from adolescence and probably before, Judith guessed, if he was anything like the rest of us.

. . . now, stopped in the center of Main Street, it was deeply quiet, and for that long moment Judith had the sensation of standing within an unshaken snow globe. For the rest of her life, whenever in some thrift shop or somebody's home she would come upon a broken snow globe, one where the snowflakes no longer swirled, she would be reminded of these moments standing in the stillness, staring at the thrift shop, and holding her father's hand.

Monday, August 8, 2011

In Zanesville, by Jo Ann Beard

"We can't believe the house is on fire. It's so embarrassing first of all, and so dangerous second of all. Also, we're supposed to be in charge here, so there's a sense of somebody not doing their job."

This opening paragraph of In Zanesville sets the town for this very funny coming-of-age story set in small-town Illinois (as an Illinois native, I'm thinking Zanesville is modeled on Moline). The narrator is a 14-year-old girl with a family that has serious problems (they're broke, the father is a drunk who disappears regularly) and a best friend named Felicia. It's the summer before ninth-grade, and the girls are babysitting a passel of kids to earn money to buy new clothes for fall. It is the home of their clients that is on fire--although the damage to the house is minimal, the boy who started the fire is severely punished by his father, hinting that the book is not just going to be a comic story.

As the two girls start the school year, they become interested in boys, which leads to some amusing episodes. Trouble comes, however, when they suddenly take a step up socially, being invited to a slumber party at a cheerleader's house. Ten boys show up to hang out with the 11 girls, and when Felicia goes off with a hunk, our heroine feels abandoned. While the description of her experience at the slumber party is funny, it's also poignant, reminding you of how serious everything feels in those early teen years. Following the party, matters get worse when, for some inexplicable reason, the cheerleaders want to hang out with the narrator (her name is never actually stated, although there are hints that made me think it's Jo Ann) but not Felicia. Without their friendship to sustain them, school is painful and the social scene seems surreal (Jo Ann has been hanging out in the artroom, picking up new vocabulary and avoiding the awkwardness of not having a crowd to sit with in the cafeteria).

While the book's undercurrent of sadness makes you think that it's going to have a very serious outcome, in fact the ending is lighthearted. Still, In Zanesville has made me start worrying about my granddaughter's teen years (and she's only 4).

Favorite passage:
I wish my mother wouldn't mention bras in front of my father; I don't know how much he knows or doesn't know about certain matters. My mother's own bras are large quilted things that I used to think were funny. Now when I see them on the laundry table, one cup folded into the other, I have a sense of impending doom. It's like being on your way to the Alps and knowing that when you get there you'll have to wear lederhosen.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

History of a Suicide: My Sister's Unfinished Life, by Jill Bialosky

In April 1990, Jill Bialosky's younger sister Kim committed suicide. For the 20 years between that event and the publication of this book, Bialosky has tried to make sense of this tragedy, by reading, attending meetings of those affected by suicide, talking with experts, reflecting on her sister's life, and perhaps most importantly by writing. In History of a Suicide, she recounts this struggle.

One of the underlying questions for Bialosky is whether she could have helped her sister; if, had she known the degree of pain her sister was in, she could have reached out and made a difference. Even those who have not had this terrible experience can imagine the toll that thinking about that question for 20 years would take. Clearly, no matter how much she reads, thinks, and talks, Bialosky cannot escape a sense of responsibility--even when experts and loved ones tell her that she is not in any way culpable.

As Bialosky describes Kim's childhood and their shared family life, events that caused Kim pain and undercut her belief in her "lovability" are evident. But others have the same experiences and do not kill themselves--something that makes the decision to die even more unfathomable for the survivors.

Bialosky writes well and I feel sympathy for the ongoing pain she has experienced (although I do admit to a bit of impatience as well). One piece that I found unfathomable--and which may account for my overall cool reaction to the book--relates to two other losses she experienced shortly after Kim's death. When Kim committed suicide, Bialosky was four months pregnant. That baby was born prematurely and died shortly after birth. A year later, Bialosky got pregnant again; that baby lived only a few hours. She says that the "trauma of losing my firstborn and the loss of Kim to suicide have forever become tangled like threads in a rope." But she virtually never mentions the two babies again. I find this incomprehensible--and, for me, it also calls into question any psychological insights Bialosky offers. If she doesn't see that her sense of responsibility for her sister (for whom she claimed to be a second mother) might be linked to the devastation of not being able to carry a baby to term, then I have serious doubts about everything she writes.

Favorite passage:
I now lived in two realms: the realm of the ordinary world of getting up in the morning and making coffee, answering the phone, and going to work, the world of traffic and noise and obligations; and the realm of stopped time where my sister was dead and I was shrouded in the confusion of her loss.

What Novel Conversations Is Reading

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

Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese (September)
One Book, One Broomfield Selection (t0 be announced soon--October)
The Borrower, by Rebecca Makkai (November)
The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton (December)
The Paris Wife, by Paula McClain (January)
A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan (February)

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Madonnas of Leningrad, by Debra Dean

The Madonnas of Leningrad is the story of a woman named Marina, both early in her life and near the end. The narrative toggles back and forth between 1941, when Marina is a young woman working at The Hermitage in Leningrad, and the present, when she is an elderly American suffering from Alzheimer's.

The story set in 1941 covers the first months of the siege of Leningrad--at first, Marina is working to help pack the museum's art so it can be trucked to a safer location and seeing her friend--soon fiance--Dmitri, who is about to leave for the front. But the situation rapidly deteriorates, as the Germans cut off the city. As the bitterly cold winter progresses, the depravations are shocking. For protection from the bombs, Marina, her aunt, and uncle move into the basement of the Hermitage with hundreds of others. They survive on a few scraps of bread a day, also eating wood, glue, and whatever else they can find that might have some nutritive value. Her aunt and uncle succumb, but Marina survives. An elderly woman who works in the museum helps Marina retain her sanity by teaching her how to build a memory palace--a method for remembering the details of all the artworks now missing from the hermitage's walls.

Those memories are more real to the elderly Marina than her granddaughter's wedding, the setting for the contemporary sections of the book. Much of the time, she does not recognize her daughter and she cannot remember where she is. Faithful Dmitri is still with her, protecting her and hiding her condition from her son and daughter. When she goes missing in the middle of the night, however, the children understand the full extent of her illness.

Both pieces of the book are interesting/informative--shedding light on a historic event I knew little about, providing a glimpse into what it might be like to have Alzheimer's, and provoking reflection on art's power. But the two pieces really don't seem to fit together, there are a lot of loose ends that never get resolved, and the characters other than Marina are not well-realized. So I liked the book--but it could have been so much more.

And BTW, the mystery binge continues: I also read Silent Mercy by Linda Fairstein while reading Madonnas. However, I have nothing to say about it.

Favorite passages:
In the half-light, their eyes meet. What he finds there is her, but also not her. Her eyes are like the bright surface of shallow water, reflecting back his own gaze. Something flutters and darts under the surface, but it might be his own desire, his own memory. He is, he realizes, probably alone.

No one weeps anymore, or if they do, it is over small things, inconsequential moments that catch them unprepared. What is left that is heartbreaking? Not death: death is ordinary. What is heartbreaking is the sight of a single gull lifting effortlessly from a street lamp. Its wings unfurl like silk scarves against the mauve sky, and Marina hears the rustle of its feathers. What is heartbreaking is that there is still beauty in the world.

The slow erosion of self has its compensations. having forgotten whatever associations might dull her vision, she can look at a leaf and see it as if for the first time. Though reason suggests otherwise, she has never seen the green before. It is wondrous. Each day, the world is made fresh again, holy, and she takes it in, in all its raw intensity, like a young child. She feels something bloom in her chest--joy or grief, eventually they are inseparable. The world is so acutely beautiful, for all its horrors, that she will be sorry to leave it.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Fatal Error, by J.A. Jance

Okay, so the mystery binge didn't quite end. Instead, I read the latest installment in J.A. Jance's Ali Reynolds series (one of four series that Jance has going--and not my favorite). Ali is a former TV anchor who returned to her hometown of Sedona, Arizona, after being fired from her job. After a series of traumas and some good luck (she keeps inheriting things, a nice trick if you can manage it), she has settled into a relationship with B. Simpson, the head of a computer security firm populated by some top-notch hackers, and is at the police academy, training so she can become the PR officer for the local sheriff's department. Unfortunately, she is laid off the day she returns from the academy.

Unemployment doesn't suit her, and she eventually is drawn into a case involving a former colleague in the news business, Brenda Riley. Brenda, too, was fired, but she hasn't fared so well post-stardom; she has been dumped by her online boyfriend and problems with alcohol have led to a series of arrests. When she discovers the erstwhile boyfriend is not who he says he is, she finds a new purpose and a lot of trouble, trouble she eventually draws Ali into.

The story is fast-paced and switches perspectives often enough to keep you interested--even though the case itself and the fact that Ali is able to crack it (mostly because of those hackers I mentioned) both seem utterly unbelievable. Jance also seems to repeat some elements of the back story of various characters unnecessarily. I don't know whether she forgot what she'd already told us (shouldn't her editor catch that?) or she thinks her readers aren't too bright and can't keep up (which would be pretty annoying)--but either way, I wish she'd cleaned that up.

Fatal Error isn't a great mystery, but it's not a terrible one either and it's a fast read, so . . . it's sideways thumb on this one.

Favorite passage: None

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Breaking Silence, by Linda Castillo

Book two in my mystery binge was a step up from Crunch Time, perhaps because it is only the third book in Linda Castillo's Kate Burkholder series. The small-town sheriff and her boyfriend--John Tomasetti of the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation--are relatively fresh characters, as is the setting, a small town in Amish country.

Kate, who was raised in an Amish family, is working two cases that are bringing back a host of troubling memories. One is an escalating series of hate crimes directed against the Amish. The other is what at first appears to be an accident--a couple and the husband's brother dead in the manure pit of their pig farm (described in nearly nauseating detail)--but is later revealed to be triple murder that leaves four children orphans. John comes to town to help with the investigation of the hate crimes. The stress of the two cases, her memories, persistent insomnia, and her shooting of a suspect escalate Kate's drinking. With John's help (readers of the earlier books in the series know he has his own demons to deal with), she manages to hold things together and solve both cases, but a total meltdown seems sure to ensue in a later title.

It's odd to me that the Amish are currently such a popular topic in reading material. I don't find the group inherently fascinating, but the situation of a woman who was formerly Amish serving as the sheriff in the "English" community near where her family lived is rife with dramatic possibilities, which Castillo exploits. I'm still looking forward to another Kate Burkholder mystery (and, lately, that's saying something).

But now, the binge goes on hold while I read The Madonnas of Leningrad, Novel Conversation's next book.

Favorite passage:
The rain started at midnight. The wind began short time later, yanking the last of the leaves from the maple and sycamore trees and sending them skittering along Main Street . . . (unfortunately, she takes the sentence in a bad direction with the last phrase: like dry, frightened crustaceans).