Monday, February 28, 2011

Blame: A Novel, by Michelle Huneven

Patsy MacLemoore is a young history professor and an alcoholic. One morning she wakes up in jail to learn that she has run over and killed two Jehovah's Witnesses in her own driveway. Because the accident occurred on her property, the charges are less severe than they might have been, and she serves a relatively short (though still difficult) prison sentence. The husband and father of her victims forgives her, and the two enter an awkward friendship.

Patsy gets out of prison, sober and determined to create a new life for herself. She returns to teaching, becomes friends with the young male lover of her former boyfriend, and meets and eventually marries his charismatic uncle Cal--despite Cal's sister Audrey warning Patsy that the May-December nature of their relationship will end up causing problems. Cal is already an AA star, and as his wife, Patsy is also frequently asked to speak at meetings around California and submit to interviews, sometimes with the husband/father of her victims.

Years pass, and it turns out Audrey had a point. Still, Patsy is committed to staying on the path she created for herself when she first left prison. Then something extraordinary happens that releases Patsy from the guilt she has carried; Cal's inability to respond enthusiastically to this event frees Patsy to create another way of living her life, one that offers her more satisfaction.

Blame is an interesting read, offering insight into the workings of AA and the potential downside of being the younger wife of a man approaching 80. Given the centrality of Patsy's guilt to the story, I expected a depthier exploration of guilt, shame, and blame--but it is not until Patsy's guilt is lifted that we begin to understand its effects--and perhaps that's the point.

Favorite passage:
Cal's kids always mattered in ways that she--the third, childless wife--could never hope to eclipse. she'd known her status when she married him. It was the sham of her marriage, really, the don't-look-too-close fine print of their agreement. A healthier, more self-respecting woman--Audrey, for example, would never have signed on.

Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility is the story of the Dashwood sisters and their romantic misadventures. Of genteel birth but with little fortune and only middling connections, sisters Elinor and Marianne both fall in love with men who need to make better matches. Both endure heartache and humiliation before Austen provides her usual happy ending.

For some reason, I had never read Sense and Sensibility, and I have to say I found it rather tedious. I tried to blame it on reading the book on Kindle . . . but Elinor is too perfect, Marianne too much of a whiner, and the characters Austen uses as foils for the two heroines are so predictable and presented with so little humor that they don't enliven the story in the same way that characters in, say, Pride and Prejudice, do. When Emma Thompson won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay for Sense and Sensibility, I thought she must have had a pretty easy task, but I now think she did, in fact, deserve the award.

Favorite passages:
There was a kind of cold hearted selfishness on both sides, which mutually attracted them; and they sympathised with each other in an insipid propriety of demeanor, and a general want of understanding.

Because they neither flattered herself nor her children, she could not believe them good-natured; and because they were fond of reading, she fancied them satirical; perhaps without exactly knowing what it was to be satirical; but THAT did not signify. It was censure in common use, and easily given.

Elinor agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Hangman, by Faye Kellerman

Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus's daughter--the fourth of their "combined" brood--is about to leave home. So, in Hangman, Faye Kellerman decides to give them a "new" child, Gabe--the 14-year-old son of two characters from a previous installment in the series. The disappearance of Gabe's mother is one of two major subplots in this mystery. The second is the murder of a young woman with a night life at odds with her work as a dedicated nurse in the neonatal unit of St. Tim's hospital. That murder eventually leads the homicide squad to two serial killers.

Hangman is a decent mystery--not terribly suspenseful, but interesting enough to keep me reading.

The False Friend, by Myla Goldberg

Myla Goldberg wrote one of my favorite books, Bee Season, which is complex, original, and beautifully written. So it's hard to judge her new book, The False Friend, on its own merits, rather than comparing it to the Bee Season standard (which it does not come close to meeting).

The False Friend opens with 31-year-old Celia Durst having a flashback on the street in Chicago. She sees a VW bug and is reminded of her childhood friend Djuna Pearson, who disappeared 20 years ago. She suddenly has a flash of "memory"--Djuna did not get in a stranger's car, as Celia had told police, but had fallen into a hole in the woods by the road. Celia had seen her fall and, because they had been fighting, left her there and lied about what happened.

Celia tells her partner Huck, a high school history teacher with a marijuana habit, who supports her decision to return to her home in upstate New York to set things straight. Her visit to her depressed hometown is not what she expected, as her parents don't believe her new "memory" but do share some thoughts of their own--a rare occurrence in the Durst household. The three girlfriends who survived the day confront her with other recollections--about the ways in which she and Djuna bullied the other girls. At first, Celia seems not to believe them, but gradually her memory of the bullying returns. When Celia visits Djuna's mother, she is confronted with another view of herself--as the special girl who should have "amounted to" something to make up for the loss of Djuna. What Celia will do with all of these new views of herself remains unclear.

In the end, The False Friend doesn't seem to add up to much. There's no real suspense, although you might expect some due to the device of the "unsolved mystery" around which Goldberg constructs the story. While she does provide a frightening glimpse into bullying and its impact on the victims, I was left wondering whether self-knowledge would result in any change in the surviving perpetrator, Celia. And maybe that's Goldberg's point.

On the nitpicking side, Goldberg makes a few references to Celia's life as an employee of the Illinois Auditor General's office that weren't quite right. She refers to the Illinois General Assembly as the "state assembly," a term used in New York and California but not (as far as I know--and I once worked in the Illinois legislature) in Illinois. I know it's picky, but a state employee would not refer to the legislature in that way--nor would she say, as Celia does when explaining what she does to people in New York, "I work for the city." No Illinois state employee would say they worked for the city of Chicago!

Favorite passage:
The experience had reinforced his notion that adulthood didn't change people so much as smooth their edges, but now he wondered if there wasn't a chrysalis model of maturity. Perhaps the child transformed itself into an entirely different organism, its remnants discarded with the ruptured cocoon. Huck wondered if the Celia he knew was recognizable to friends who had only known her earlier incarnation, or if they were as baffled by her now as he was by the girl she claimed to have once been.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Christmas Mourning, by Margaret Maron

Christmas Mourning is the 16th title in Margaret Maron's Deborah Knott series. Set in North Carolina, the series focuses on Knott, who is a district judge, and her husband Dwight Bryant, a sheriff's deputy. When Maron started the series, more attention was given to the possible conflicts that arose between Deborah's legal career and her father's long tenure as a bootlegger, but Deborah's large and complicated family has faded into the background, where they provide local color and humor.

Two cases are at the heart of Christmas Mourning--the death of a popular teenager in a one-car accident on a straight stretch of road and the murders of two brothers likely to become career criminals. While the two events do not seem to be related, this is mystery fiction after all, so of course they are. And of course there are red herrings, obvious clues that Deborah and Dwight miss, and a neatly tied-up solution. My sarcasm notwithstanding, the book is a fairly fun read--especially when you're sick in bed (as I am at the moment).

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, by Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li was born in Beijing in the early 70s and came to the United States in her 20s to study medicine....but somewhere alone the line, she decided to be a writer. Given her life story (I know, I know--fiction writers don't write only from their experiences), I expected Li's collection of stories to be about life in Beijing or the immigrant experience. Instead, the stories are primarily about people in rural China or in provincial cities.

In the book's longest story, "Kindness"--perhaps really a novella--a middle-aged woman reminisces about her childhood and her compulsory year of military service. In both phases of her life, an older woman tried to reach out to her--Professor Shan who read to her from English novels and an Army lieutenant who sees her unhappiness and wants to help--but the narrator resisted their efforts and has ended up a solitary math teacher with virtually no human connections. She remembers once feeling that she was in love with a man who lived downstairs from Professor Shan, but their relationship consisted only of chitchat spoken in the yard or on the stairs. When he moved away, she stopped visiting Professor Shan.

Loneliness and loss are themes throughout the stories, which feature male and female characters, from youth to old age. In the story "Prison" an immigrant couple's teenage daughter has been killed in a car accident. They decide to have another child, using a surrogate in their native China. The wife, Yilan chooses a woman who seems to have the spark the other women who applied for the "position" lacked; Yilan plans to live with the surrogate in China until the baby is born. In a matter of weeks, however, "the world of trust and love they had built together was crushed, and they would remain each other's prisoners for as long as they stayed under the same roof."

Teacher Fei, of "A Man Like Him," is also in a prison--he is caring for his aging, ill mother. He escapes to the nearby Internet cafe whenever he can. There, he becomes interested in a site posted by a girl who is trying to shame her unfaithful father into returning to her mother. Mr. Fei tracks down the father, with whom he feels a bond because he, too, had a brush with sexual infamy.

Li's stories are dark, and they are written in a rather flat tone. Thus, I found myself observing the characters rather than becoming engaged with them--and perhaps that is a good thing. As is often the case when I read short stories, I found myself saying "hunh?" at the end of several stories. Nonetheless, the stories did keep me reading,

Favorite passage:
They were lonely and sad people, all three of them, and they would not make one another less sad, but they could, with great care, make a world that would accommodate their loneliness.

(This is the last line of the last story, and I think it's lovely and summative.)

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Down Came the Rain, by Brooke Shields

The subtitle of this volume by the actor Brooke Shields describes well its content: My Journey Through Postpartum Depression. Shields went through a grueling series of fertility treatments in order to get pregnant, had a difficult labor followed by a C-section, and nearly immediately after the birth felt detached and sad. Spending most of her time sobbing, Shields felt like she was in the Twilight Zone, "waiting for someone to turn off the TV."

Fairly quickly, family and friends recognized that something was wrong. They urged her to get help, in the form of a nanny and/or medical assistance. Shields, a perfectionist who believed in solving her own problems, resisted for a number of weeks, but finally agreed to get temporary help with the baby and take medication. When she felt better, she decided to stop taking the drugs and crashed again. She finally accepted that she was suffering from postpartum depression and that, not only did she need the medication, but therapy would also be beneficial. By daughter Rowan's first birthday, Shields had regained her equilibrium and had even begun thinking of a second child.

For a public figure and perfectionist like Shields, revealing her struggle with depression must have required great courage. Her honesty has undoubtedly helped other mothers suffering with depression and provided a tool for the people who love them. I admire her for taking that risk and shining a bright light on postpartum depression. On the other hand, there is something odd about the persona she presents--she seems not quite to inhabit her own life, observing herself rather than actually being. This may be an artifact of the memoir form in the hands of a non-professional writer, or a byproduct of having been looked at by people since she was just a baby herself. Or it may be my imagination (full disclosure: I came to the book with a bit of bias against Shields after reading Andre Agassi's book). That issue notwithstanding, Shields's book is worth reading.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

What Is Novel Conversations Reading

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

March: After This, by Alice McDermott

April: The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman

May: The Light of Evening, by Edna O’Brien

June: A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick

July: Room, by Emma Donohue

Thursday, February 10, 2011

In the Woods, by Tana French

When he was 12 years old, Adam Ryan and his two best friends, Peter and Jamie, disappeared in the woods near their homes; Adam was found after a few hours, covered with blood but generally unharmed. His friends were never found, and Adam had no memory of what happened.

Twenty-plus years later, Adam is an Irish homicide detective known as Rob Ryan. On the police force, only his partner Cassie Maddox knows his story. The two are close, verbally sparring at work, drinking together in the evenings, and often spending the night together on the same futon (but with no sexual activity). Then 12-year-old girl Katy Devlin is found murdered in the same woods where Adam/Rob's friends disappeared, and Rob and Cassie catch the case.

As they investigate , Rob and Cassie learn more about events around the disappearance of Peter and Jamie but at first make little progress in solving Katy's murder (they don't seem to be very good investigators). As the twin pressures of spending time in his home town and failing to solve Katy's case build, Rob starts to lose his grip. Because French foreshadows with an extremely heavy hand, we know things are going to end badly. In the end, however, they didn't end as badly as I expected (though readers who like everything to be wrapped up neatly may find the ending dissatisfying).

The writing at the beginning of the book is so lovely that I was disappointed as the book devolved into a rather average murder mystery. I'll read French's second book, but I can't help wondering whether mystery is really her genre.

Favorite passages:
Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland's subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur's palate, watercolor nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silkscreen blue. This summer explodes on your tongue tasting of chewed blades of long grass, your own clean sweat, Marie biscuits with butter squirting through the holes and shaken bottles of red lemonade picnicked in tree houses.

The wood is all flicker and murmur and illusion. Its silence is a pointillist conspiracy of a million tiny noises--rustles, flurries, nameless truncated shrieks; its emptiness teems with secret life, scurrying just beyond the corner of your eye. Careful: bees zip in and out of cracks in the leaning oak; stop to turn any stone and strange larvae will wriggle irritably, while an earnest thread of ants twines up your ankle.

What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass. It is the core of our careers, the endgame of every move we make, and we pursue it with strategies painstakingly constructed of lies and concealment and every variation on deception.

For a moment I was dizzied by the impulse to leave her there: shove the techs' hands away, shout at the hovering morgue men to get the hell out. We had taken enough toll on her. All she had left was her death and I wanted to leave her that, that at least. I wanted to wrap her up in soft blankets, stroke back her clotted hair, pull up a duvet of falling leaves and little animals' rustles. Leave her to sleep, sliding away forever down her secret underground river, while breathing seasons spun dandelion seeds and moon phases and snowflakes above her head. She had tried so hard to live.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Strangers at the Feast, by Jennifer Vanderbes

It is Thanksgiving, and the Olson family--one of those lovely-on-the-surface-but-deeply-dysfunctional suburban families--is getting together for the holiday meal. They are gathering at he house of Ginny, the scholar who has recently adopted a mute seven-year-old girl from India (illegally, we find out). Ginny's brother Doug, real estate mogul (failed, we find out), is horrified by the state of repair in Ginny's newly purchased home and dashes around pointing out potentially fatal flaws to her while his wife Denise and their three children mope. Even worse than the home's state of repair is the fact that Ginny doesn't have a television--unable to watch the game, what will they do?

Enter the patriarch and matriarch, who arrive in separate cars, emblematic of the state of their 39-year marriage. Eleanor is a housewife who seems to float on the edge of reality. Gavin is a reserved if not depressed insurance agent and Vietnam vet. While waiting for dinner, Gavin discovers a journal article Ginny wrote on the "Emasculation of the American Warrior" and pinches the journal for later reading.

While they wait for the dinner to cook, Kijo and Spider, African American teenagers, are in a van headed for Doug and Denise's McMansion. Armed with duffels full of spray paint, they aim to have a bit of vengeance--Doug forced Kijo and his grandmother out of their family home to make way for an office tower. When it turns out that Ginny's stove isn't working and the family loads all the food into cars to head for her brother's home, it's obvious confrontation lies ahead.

Author Vanderbes loads us up with additional backstory as we wait for the confrontation--the ill-fated opportunity Eleanor had to write an article about her life choices for Good Housekeeping, Gavin's teenage lover in Vietnam, the start of Doug's financial problems when the tech bubble of the 1990s burst, Denise's near affair with a Middle Eastern teacher who disappeared around the time of 9/11, the heroism of Kijo's grandmother as she fought to save her home. When the confrontation does occur, the chaos that ensues is shocking without being surprising.

Vanderbes makes her points--the damage done to economically struggling people by unthinking, greedy developers and white America's sense of entitlement, the scars that spiritual and emotional isolation leave on people no matter what their status--and she does it competently (although the prologue that lets us know something bad will happen really isn't necessary). But the book left me unmoved, perhaps because the characters, particularly Kijo and Spider, are more the author's tools than true inhabitants of their own stories.

Favorite passage:
Long ago he'd made a choice not to pity himself; a man owned his choices, his mistakes. And over time, a mistake of such magnitude hardened like a growth; misshapen flesh on his body that, in the depths of night, roused from sleep, Gavin probed with his fingertips: that is me. Over thirty-six years, his anger had amassed, like thickened issue, around the moment he stepped onto the army-transport plane for Vietnam. That wrong turn--it was him. His life was defined by that choice, how could he say he would have chosen differently? We were our mistakes; we breathed them daily. In summer, they seeped from our skin.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson

Out Stealing Horses is a book in which nearly everything seems to happen twice. In the present (fall and early winter 1999), the protagonist Trond Sander is living in a remote cabin in rural Norway, where he has retreated after the deaths of his wife and sister. In 1948, a period that Trond spends a great deal of time remembering, Trond and his father were spending the summer in another remote cabin in rural Norway. The summer of 1948 was significant for Trond for numerous reasons. He learned from a man living near the cabin why his father had been absent so much during the war years--he was a courier for the Resistance. He discovered that his father was having an affair with his friend Jon's mother, who awakens 15-year-old Trond's own sexual longings. (Trond and his father do not discuss either of these discoveries.) He loses Jon, when Jon is sent away after leaving his loaded rifle on the table where his younger brother Lars could pick it up and accidentally shoot his twin Odd (mirroring the war-time killing of one of the twin brothers of Trond's mother). By the end of the summer, Trond has also lost his father, who does not rejoin the family in Oslo and is never heard from again.

Trond's abandonment by his father clearly had an enormous effect on him, but it was still shocking to learn well into the book that Trond has children that he has also abandoned--much later in life, but an abandonment nonetheless. He moved to the country without telling his daughters--when one of them tracks him down eight months later, she has had to call officials in communities within an 80-mile radius to find him.

Even the title makes two appearances in the story--on the last day they spend together, Jon wakes Trond by saying, "Let's go out stealing horses"; in fact, they merely steal rides on the neighbor's horses. But it turns out that the same phrase was a code among members of the resistance in the area.

The writing is lovely. I don't know whether Petterson is simply a wonderful translatable author (an interview I read said he had done a lot of rewriting during the translation process, which is quite interesting and something I'd like to know more about), Anne Born is a marvelous translator, or both, but the result is readable, evocative prose.

I'm still grappling with Trond's story--Petterson does have me thinking about to what extent we repeat our parents' lives and whether we can, as Trond says at the end of the book, "decide for ourselves when it will hurt." I'm eager to hear what others in Novel Conversations have to say about the book.

Favorite passages:
Maybe in those days I lacked a certain type of imagination, and possibly I still do, but what I saw happening on the other side of the river came upon me so unexpectedly that I sat there staring, with my mouth open, not cold, not hot, not even lukewarm, but with my head almost bursting with emptiness, and if anyone had caught sight of me just then, they may well have thought I had run away from a home for backward children.

. . . I closed my eyes and lifted my face to the sky, and there was nothing coming down that I could feel. Only cool air on my skin and the scent of resin and timber, and the scent of earth, and a bird whose name I did not know hopping around in a thicket rustling and crackling and sending out a steady stream of thin piping sounds from the dense foliage a few paces from my foot. It was a strange, lonely sound out there in the night, but I did not know whether it was the bird I thought was lonely or if it was me.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Queen of the Night, by J.A. Jance

J.A. Jance has four different mystery series going, each with its own "star": J.P. Beaumont (my favorite), Joanna Brady, Ali Reynolds, and the Walker Family. Queen of the Night is one of the latter series, although Dr. Lani Walker and her adoptive parents, retired detective Brandon Walker and his wife Diana Ladd, are only three of more than a dozen important characters in the book.

Jance presents the story in brief sections, each prefaced with the location, date, time, and temperature; the first three sections describe three murders, one in 1959, one in 1978, and one in 2009. How the three might be linked is totally unclear. She then continues with short narratives involving a multitude of apparently unrelated characters. As the connections start to develop, it's soon apparent that some of the very likable people she has introduced are going to be victims. There's not a tremendous amount of mystery for the reader in terms of "whodunit," as we know who the killers were in two of the cases and the third is not a major focus. More interesting are developments among the characters: the mental problems that Diana is having but that she and Brandon are not talking about, the connections that begin to develop between Lani, Dan Pardee (a member of a special Native American Border Patrol unit), and the four-year-old daughter of one of the murder victims.

Jance weaves Native American stories into the narrative (the book is dedicated to Tony Hillerman), which ought to add another layer to the story but instead seems like a bit of a gimmick that adds to the book's overall "jumpiness." Queen of the Night is fine for a "light" read--Jance does bring the disparate elements of the story together into a happy ending (perhaps overly happy, given how many people died in the course of the book). It is not, however, one of her best.

Favorite passage: None