Saturday, January 29, 2011

Extraordinary, Ordinary People, by Condoleezza Rice

I am no fan of Condoleezza Rice, but I found her book Extraordinary, Ordinary People interesting on several levels. First, her story of growing up in segregated Birmingham is eye-opening for someone who grew up in the rural Midwest. The ways that middle class black parents sought to insulate their children from the most damaging aspects of segregation and prejudice and give them an excellent education and happy childhood are truly both extraordinarily ordinary. At the same time, the black community had its own class and color prejudices, which Rice discusses unflinchingly. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Birmingham, Rice's father--an educator and minister--declined to take part in the King-led marches, a fact that Rice devotes considerable time to justifying.

Rice revered her parents. Again, for someone with a very different personal story--I'm one of five children--her depiction of being an only child is fascinating. To me, she seems overly entangled with her parents as an adult--but perhaps to another only child, that entanglement would seem totally normal.

Rice ends the book with George W. Bush's being declared the winner of the 2000 election, so her next book is likely to be more political. From this volume, however, I get the impression that she is far from being an idealogue. She explains that she became a Republican because she believed Jimmy Carter handled foreign policy in general and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan so badly. Of course, her beloved father was also a Republican, so that was likely influential as well. She argues more than once for affirmative action and says that she opposes overturning Roe v. Wade--not the views one might expect from Rice.

While I wished for a bit more reflection (much of the book is a straightforward recounting of events) and a heavier hand in the editing (Rice uses the phrase "to this day" so often I wanted to scream), Extraordinary, Ordinary People is a worthwhile read that reminded me how easy it is to judge someone without knowing a great deal about them.

Favorite passage:
All of these elements--extended family, community, schools, and churches--conspired together to convince me and my peers that racism was "their" problem, not ours. Whatever feelings of insecurity or inadequacy black adults felt in the appalling and depressing circumstances of Jim Crow Birmingham, they did not transfer it to us. For the children of our little enclave, Titusville, the message was crystal clear. We love you and will give you everything we can to help you succeed. But there are no excuses and there is no place for victims.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Bound, by Antonya Nelson

Bound begins with a woman and her dog, driving cross country. She has already had two accidents that day--she's about to have her third (and final) accident. When she dies, her dog takes off and we spend considerable time with him until he is found by an unhappy couple camping. Why Antonya Nelson spent so much time on the dog (to whom she finally returns in the last couple pages of the book) is unclear, as is the reason the woman is on the road trip.

We do, however, learn that the woman, whose name is Misty, has a daughter Cattie, who has been sent from her home in Houston to a boarding school in the Northeast, where she has only one friend, Ito. We also learn that Misty has left a will naming her best friend from high school, Catherine, to be Misty's guardian. Since Misty and Catherine have not seen each other in 20 years, Catherine is surprised, to say the least. She is also surprised to learn that Cattie has gone missing from the boarding school. Readers know that she is hiding out in a house also occupied by Ito's cousin Joanne and a bizarre AWOL serviceman named Randall, with whom she will save a dog and her pups and head out on a road trip to Houston. We also know that Catherine's husband, who has a habit of abandoning his wives for younger models (Catherine is his third wife) is having an affair with one of his employees and is thinking of leaving Catherine. And the BTK killer has reemerged in Wichita, where Catherine lives and where she and Misty grew up.

Does this sound jumbled? For me, that's exactly how reading Bound felt, and I never really found any coherence, even when the stories of Catherine and Cattie came together.

Favorite passages:
She sat wedged in a wing chair, her brow creased, her heavy lips down-turned, looking for all the world like the chastising high priestess of a disappointing African tribe.

People of their generation, people who'd been raised on the prairie or in the Dust Bowl, who'd performed their jobs in service of the greater good, did not require a public airing off, or praise for, their feelings. A lot could be said for not saying anything.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Widower's Tale, by Julia Glass

The widower Percy Darling is at the center of Julia Glass's fine fourth novel, which opens just as the barn on Percy's property, which has stood empty since his wife's accidental drowning more than 20 years ago, is about to become the home of the Elves and Fairies preschool in his suburban Boston community. The transformation of the barn marks the beginning of an awakening for the recently retired librarian. He falls in love with a younger woman named Sarah, agrees to take part in a house tour (something that would have anathema to him just months before), and becomes more engaged with his daughters, the overachieving Trudy and the drastically underachieving Clover. But the story is, of course, not as light as this synopsis might suggest--Sarah is diagnosed with breast cancer, Clover has left her children and husband and is miserable, the house tour leads to unwanted visitors and buyers, and grandson Robert is in deep trouble.

Robert, a premed student at Harvard, gets sucked into a campaign of environmental terrorism by his mysterious and charismatic roommate Turo. We also learn the "tales" of Celestino, an immigrant whose story has hidden complexities that those who see him tending gardens in Matlock would never guess, and Ira, who has come to teach at Elves and Fairies after being forced out at the last school where he taught when parents learned he was gay. Intertwined with the stories of these four central characters are a variety of contemporary issues--immigration law, environmental problems, loss of the historical village's character, the blindness of the privileged to the poverty in their midst. But as the story reaches its climax, what matters are the connections among people.

Glass is a master of weaving together the stories of characters whose stories begin tangentially and end up as elements of a beautifully designed tapestry. She does a superb job of drawing the four main characters, an interesting achievement given that they are all male. While not as complex (or dark) as Three Junes, The Widower's Tale is a rewarding read.

Favorite passages:
Some might have referred to Vince, Buck, and Calvin as "ordinary fellows" or "salt of the earth." Such terms are merely code for men who've led lives in which boyhood dreams become a luxury, a whim, before boyhood even comes to an end.

It was straightforward, then, the path I followed; I see it as proof of a happy childhood. Take that, Dr. Freud (Philip Larkin, too).

(Larkin's poem about how your parents ruin you is one of my son's favorites, so I couldn't resist the latter quote!)

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Good Daughters, by Joyce Maynard

The messages of Joyce Maynard's latest novel seem to be threefold: (1) genetics are everything, (2) women in the 1950s did what their husbands and/or lovers told them to--even when it involved raising the wrong child, and (3) if we didn't know they were our brothers, our brothers would be our soul mates. Unfortunately, all three are a little hard to take (sorry to my three bros, but as to number 3--ugh!).

The book is about two families--the farming Planks, who have five daughters, and the nomadic Dickersons, who have a son and a daughter. Dana Dickerson and Ruth Plank were born on the same day, and for many years that fact seems to provide a weird link between two families that otherwise have nothing in common. Both girls, who narrate the book in alternating chapters (their voices unfortunately don't sound very different), feel out of place in their families. Short, stocky Dana is uninterested in art or the succession of Barbies that her tall, slender artist mother gets her; instead, she loves to talk to Mr. Plank about plant propagation. Tall, slender Ruth loves to draw but feels no closeness with her short, stocky mother and sisters. Is it a little obvious what the "twist" is going to be?

Dana grows up to be a happy lesbian farmer (although her partner fails to get tenure in the 1980s when she is outed). Meanwhile Ruth has an ill-fated relationship with Dana's brother Ray, which her mother breaks up when Ruth reveals she is pregnant; she then marries a man for whom she feels the most tepid of emotions. By the end of the book, Dana has been widowed and Ruth is divorced; together, they buy the other Plank sisters out and run the family farm together, surviving "against all odds."

I'm sure Maynard was going for a deeply meaningful exploration of family issues, but the book is predictable and simplistic. Not recommended.

Favorite passage:
I loved manure . . . A lot of people don't appreciate good manure, no doubt. Sometimes, on walks, if we were going through a pasture where cattle grazed, I'd bend over and pick up a clod of the stuff an work it over in my hand, scattering the bits as I went. I liked to think about all the things that went into this particular piece of manure: grass, grain, seeds of other plants, chewed up and passed out through the cow's intestine, to start the process going all over again. When you think about this, it's a beautiful thing . . .

(Oh, please--I grew up on a farm and I've never heard anyone wax poetic about manure. It is what it is.)

Saturday, January 15, 2011

An Old-Fashioned Girl, by Louisa May Alcott

While other girls of my generation were reading and rereading Alcott's Little Women (my sister read it so many times that my parents hid it from hItalicer, fearing she was identifying with the sickly/dead Beth), I was reading An Old-Fashioned Girl over and over. Since classics for the Kindle are only 99 cents, I recently decided to reread this childhood favorite for the first time in 40 years.

Polly Milton, the title character, is nearly perfect. The daughter of a country pastor with a large family, Polly comes to visit her friend Fanny Shaw in the first chapters of the book. Polly is put in stark contrast to Fanny and her friends, who are privileged, shallow, fashion-obsessed gossips. All of the members of the Shaw family--including neglected Grandma, sickly Mother, remote Father, hell-raising brother Tom, and obnoxious little sister Maud--come to love Polly. And who wouldn't? She's a sweet ray of sunshine who gives them all the attention they don't get from their own kin--even though occasionally feeling condescended to by Fanny and her friends.

When we skip ahead six years, Polly is returning to the city to make her way as a music teacher. Having Polly travel between the worlds of her wealthy friends and the working women and impoverished families she encounters in her rooming house allows Alcott to provide considerable social commentary (see Favorite Passage below for an example). With echoes of Jane Austen Alcott, despite her apparent admiration for working girls, still ensures that Polly and Fanny are happily engaged by the end of the book.

So, why did I like this book so much as a preteen? In part, I think it was simply having a romantic view of the world (I still enjoy a good rom-com) strong enough to see poverty as somehow romantic (the part of the book I remembered most vividly, aside from Polly's learning that Tom loved her, was the "adventure" when the Shaws lost their money and had to learn how to live more modestly). Less positively, as the middle child of five, I think I may have identified with the somewhat put-upon Polly--though I certainly was never as cheerful as she. While I don't think I'll feel the need to reread this book again, I am wondering about a few of the other books I loved as a girl--I may have to do some more revisiting of my youthful obsessions.

Favorite passage:
. . . the most utterly fashionable life does not kill the heart out of women, till years of selfish pleasure have passed over their heads.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Man in the Woods, by Scott Spencer

How would it change your life if you killed a man? That is the provocative question Scott Spencer poses in Man in the Woods. At the center of the story is Paul Phillips, a skilled carpenter, who lives in upstate New York with his girlfriend Kate, who has built a successful career as a writer and speaker featuring her self-deprecatingly humorous reflections on finding Jesus as a recovering alcoholic, and Kate's eight-year-old daughter Ruby. One day, driving home from NYC, Paul stops at a state park to collect his thoughts. He sees a man (the reader has the advantage of knowing the man is something of a scumbag, on the lam because of gambling debts) abusing his dog. Paul intervenes to save the dog and, when the situation gets totally out of hand, kills the man. He takes the dog, whom he calls Shep, and leaves.

The rest of the book deals with the effect of this violent episode on Paul and, after he confides in her, on Kate and their relationship. Spencer throws a variety of other characters into the mix--the overweight cop who is investigating the murder, the "debt collector" who is a suspect in the case, Paul's sister and her Iranian-Lebanese husband (who has immigration problems), Paul's lesbian apprentice Evangeline--but they re little more than distractions. What we care about is the spiral that Paul, Kate, and Ruby find themselves in. While all the cracks in their psyches and their relationship may not be caused by the murder, it's impact is certainly great.

The story is disturbing--perhaps never more so than when Ruby begins to have serious psychological issues--engaging, and surprising.

Favorite passages:
A walk in the woods is like wading through a river; you can't walk in the same woods twice, no matter how you may try. You can tread the same path and at the same pace and at the same time of day, you can measure your steps so that Tuesday's walk matches Mondays as closely as possible, but no matter what, the walk will be singular and unique. Leaves will have fallen since your last time here, pinecones, acorns, berries, shit, a beer can, a candy wrapper. Procreation will have taken place, pursuit, death, shoots will have been eaten, brush will have been trampled, bark will have peeled, roots will have grown deeper. Decay and regeneration are a wheel that will not stop turning, even now, autumn by the calendar, winter by the bone, the gray wash-water sky, the liquefying leaves underfoot, even now the wheel turns, slower than in the warmer months but with a bleak grandeur.

Kate takes a deep breath; she is aware of her soul's sudden sourness. Where is the grace, the pity, where is the warmth? They have all fled, along with God. . . . Were they all just the tail tied to the kite that was her faith, and now that the string has snapped, have they all disappeared into the wild blue?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks was a young African-American mother of five who felt a "knot" on her womb. When she went to Johns Hopkins--one of the few hospitals in Baltimore that served sick black people--she had only months to live. But, cells from the tumor on her cervix were destined for a longer life--taken without her knowledge, the cells proved to be the first ever to live and reproduce in lab cultures. In fact, the so-called HeLa cells reproduced at a tremendous rate and the scientist who initially began working with them, George Gey, made them readily available to virtually anyone who asked. Over time, the cells were used in an incredible number and range of research studies.

Rebecca Skloot weaves together Henrietta's story with an examination of the many ways in which the HeLa cells were used and the controversies that arose around them. She also introduces readers to Henrietta's children, who knew nothing about the use of their mother's cells until 20 years after her death; the effort it took to gain their trust and assistance; and the challenges of researching the personal aspects of the story. Henrietta's daughter Deborah is a particularly engaging Through these diverse narratives, she explores issues of poverty, race and medicine, and the ethics of conducting scientific/medical research using tissue taken from human beings.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an engaging read that also poses important sociocultural and ethical questions that Skloots challenges the reader to consider. Her book should be required reading for students considering a career in medical research, as well as for anyone who has benefitted from research using the HeLa cells (i.e., nearly everyone--when the book was published in 2009, 60,000 scientific articles had been published based on research using HeLa, and 300 additional articles were being published each month).

Favorite passages:
Thank you, Ma, we will see you again someday. We read what we can and try to understand. My mind often wonder how things might would be if God had you stay here with me...I keep with me all I know about you deep in my soul, because I am part of you, and you are me. We love you Mama. (Spoken by Henrietta's daughter Deborah)

"This child will someday know that her great-grandmother Henrietta helped the world!" Fullum [Deborah's husband] yelled. Then he pointed around the room at Devon and JaBrea's other cousins, saying, "So will that child . . . and that child . . . and that child. This is their story now. They need to take hold of it and let it teach them they can change the world too."
He raised his arms above his head and yelled hallelujah. Baby JaBrea waved her hands and let out a loud happy screech, and the congregation yelled amen.

Private Life, by Jane Smiley

In Private Life, Jane Smiley explores the interior world of Margaret Mayfield Early. Margaret is a Missouri girl in the late 19th century, the Mayfield family's third child and oldest girl. When her mother is giving birth to one of her younger sisters, her brother takes her to witness a hanging. For years, Margaret claims she cannot remember this experience. Her failure to remember it becomes something for which she is known--and a window into how fully she can suppress her feelings.

Her older brothers and her father die tragically, and the all-female survivors head to the family farm to live with their grandfather, about whom Margaret says, "The world had swirled around him, but he had done as he pleased and remained as evidently himself as a tree might, or a stone might." Great energy goes into finding husbands for the young women, but Margaret somehow reaches the age of 27 without marrying. Then, Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early--a man with a reputation for being both brilliant and difficult--asks for her hand. She accepts his offer, and the couple (marriage still unconsummated) head to California, where Andrew has gotten a low-prestige job at a small naval observatory.

With few expectations for happiness in marriage, Margaret finds little joy with her husband but manages to entertain herself in other ways--an ongoing friendship with Dora (her sister's sister-in-law), who becomes a globetrotting reporter, charity work, and an array of relationships with people ranging from a handsome ex-pat Ukrainian and a Japanese-American family. Her two pregnancies end in grief--one a miscarriage, the other producing a very ill baby who will live only a few weeks.

Meanwhile, Andrew is busy developing a theory that explains the universe much more satisfactorily than Einstein has done. When his book is not well-received (Margaret, who types his work, has herself concluded that her husband is something of a crackpot), Andrew becomes even stranger, creating increasing stress in the marriage. By the time World War II arrives, Andrew's eccentricities drive Margaret to the brink. Does she fall over the precipice or take action to save herself? No spoiler here, but the ending is rewarding.

I have not been a big Jane Smiley fan, but I really enjoyed this book. The characters are particularly well-drawn; while Andrew is hardly sympathetic, the depiction of a failed scientist who does not realize how far off his theories are is fascinating. While some reviewers have found Margaret to be unsympathetic, I found her endearing and strong, if not courageous. Smiley beautifully limns the dynamics in what might be called a marriage of convenience--a type of union that must have been common in an era when women had few options for living outside marriage. I highly recommend Private Life.

Favorite passages:
Pedaling straight forward was a new experience for her . . . Covering distance in this solitary manner was marvelously intoxicating. The brown fields and the blue sky were all around; they seemed to dissipate crisply and evenly into all the distances--forward, backward, upward. The fields were darkly defined by the denuded brown trunks of hickories, black walnuts, and oaks. In Mr. Jones's pasture, across the fence from John Gentry's hay field, five or six white hogs were grunting and rooting for acorns; the noises they made had the clarity of gongs ringing in the air.

She looked at his face. She saw that he had but one thing left, which was that he could look back at her. She stroked the top of his head, moving the thin hairs this way and that, feeling the smoothness of his golden skin. She held him closer, as gently as she could. And then, in the way that you can feel with your baby but not see or sense with anyone else larger or more distantly related, she felt the life force go out of him entirely.

She could describe this feeling she had, that her marriage had become an intolerable torture, that the sight of his head ducking slightly as he went through doorways of the new house was repellent to her, that she felt warm, humid air press against her when he entered the room, that his voice made her want to scream, that she thought he was a fool and even a madman, and that she was going mad herself, that, from the outside, every marriage looked as bad to her, because she knew every house she passed was a claustrophobic cell where at least one of the partners never learned anything, bud did the same things over and over, like an infernal machine, and the other partner had no recourse of any kind, no way out, no one to talk to about it, not even any way to look at it all that gave relief. The doorways of the new house were very high. It was mere habit to duck his head for them.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Blindman's Bluff, by Faye Kellerman

I'm on a mystery kick at the moment, and I probably wouldn't even include all of them on the blog, but I have a mini-rant to go on about Blindman's Bluff. First, let me say it's not a bad mystery--in fact, I enjoyed it. There is one ridiculous coincidence--Rina Lazarus, wife of police lieutenant Peter Decker, while on jury duty just happens to have contact with two people involved in the multiple murder that Peter is investigating. But overall, it's well-plotted; although the mystery's solution is not a big surprise, Kellerman does provide good insight into the detective work required to get to that solution and reminds us that, even at the end of an investigation, the police may still have unanswered questions.

Now for the rant: Faye Kellerman has written more than 20 mysteries--and she's the wife of another mystery writer and mother of a third. So how could she make the mistake of referring to a plaintiff in a criminal trial? Perhaps in days past, victims or accusers in criminal trials were referred to as plaintiffs. Currently, however, that term refers to the person who brings a civil action. Someone should have corrected this! (I realize I'm picking nits, but that's what a rant is for, right?)

Monday, January 3, 2011

Persuasion, by Jane Austen

Many people think Persuasion is the best of Jane Austen's works, but after a second reading (and viewing of two film adaptations), I still don't think Persuasion can hold a candle to Pride and Prejudice...or even Emma.

What do people who love Persuasion say about it? They like that it features an older heroine, and it's true--Anne Elliot is in her late twenties. She has lost her looks and her spunk, following the breakup of her romance with Captain Frederick Wentworth some eight years earlier. She broke off the relationship when her father and godmother convinced her that the navy man was unworthy of her. She's sweet and caring, a good person--which is nothing short of a miracle given that every other member of her family is self-centered and disgustingly status-conscious. But she's a wimp! Elizabeth Bennett would not have been so easily persuaded and if she had lost a man, she would never have lost her spirit!

Persuasion fans also find the theme of constancy appealing. But are Anne and the Captain truly constant? True, they have not married anyone else and they still have feelings for each other, but neither have they taken any action in eight years. Eight years!! Nothing happens until circumstance brings the two lovers back together. It seems to me to be a constancy that has little meaning.

A third argument I've heard for Persuasion's superiority is that Jane Austen's satire of British society is more pointed than ever in this novel. Certainly, the critique is very sharp here, with a collection of despicable characters from the aristocracy and the novel's underlying event--an act of prejudice that scarred two fine young people. But one of the beauties of Pride and Prejudice for me is that Mr. Darcy is so flawed--but is still lovable and capable of change.

One might think from my remarks that I hated Persuasion--that's not true. I enjoyed it well enough, but it will not supplant P&P as my favorite Austen work.

Favorite passage:
When the evening was over, Anne could not but be amused at the idea of her coming to Lyme to preach patience and resignation to a young man whom she had never seen before; nor could she help fearing, on more serious reflection, that, like many other great moralists and preachers, she had been eloquent on a point in which her own conduct would ill bear examination.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Last Lie, by Stephen White

Since starting this blog, I have been whining pretty much incessantly about series mysteries. Imagine my surprise when I began this year with a series mystery that I really enjoyed--The Last Lie, featuring Boulder psychologist Alan Gregory. I've also enjoyed this series because of the Boulder setting--Alan eats breakfast at Lucile's, where my friend Lynn's husband is the executive chef. For some reason, that adds to my enjoyment! Occasionally, I've quibbled with the plotting in White's series, and this book is definitely long on convenient coincidences, but they did not interfere with my enjoyment.

Two story strands become entwined in The Last Lie. New neighbors have moved into the house that once belonged to Alan's late friends Adrienne and Peter (parents of Alan and Lauren's adopted son Jonas). Alan and Mattin, the male half of the wealthy couple who bought the house, get off to a bad start when Mattin complains about Alan's beloved dog Emily roaming around Spanish Hills off leash. The neighbors seem destined to become important characters in the book, as their renovations promise to be difficult for Alan and Jonas, who are still grieving Adrienne's death.

In the other strand, Alan is supervising the practice of a young psychologist, whose skills are being challenged by one patient--a young widow who is struggling with her grief. The insight White provides into the process of supervision is very interesting (perhaps appealing to the same curiosity that makes In Treatment one of my favorite shows ever). When the young widow reports being raped after attending a housewarming at Alan's new neighbors (perhaps you begin to see what I mean about coincidences), Alan is walking a very fine line as he gathers information from his supervisee, his assistant DA wife, and his cop friend Sam Purdy. While he believes he is only doing what is necessary to make sure his family is protected and does not think he has a conflict of interest, the fact that he finds himself lying more than he is comfortable with signals the ambiguity of his position.

There are other coincidences (you might think Boulder was a town of 10,000 instead of 100,000) and more violence, as well as Sam Purdy's somewhat lengthy parables about how the maneuvering of lawyers subverts the justice system. But it was the psychological aspects of the story that kept me interested.

Favorite passage:

". . . dear Lord, behavior like that would have been tawdry, wouldn't it?"

I laughed. "Did you say tawdry?"

"Other than that one time I was in New Orleans, where it just seems so natural a word, I get few opportunities," Sam said.