Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Last Secret, by Mary McGarry Morris

Years ago, Mary McGarry Morris's Songs in Ordinary Time was chosen for Oprah's book club; I saw it at my mom's house and snagged it...but I never could read it. I would open it, read the first few pages, and quit. It sat on a stack by my bed for years. And then it disappeared (I think I may have sold it at a garage sale).

Recently, my friend Lynn handed me The Last Secret with a comment along the lines of "This isn't very good, but..." Because it was a lot shorter than Songs in Ordinary Time, I decided to long beyond her less than ringing endorsement and read it. She was right. The Last Secret isn't very good.

The story of a woman (Nora Hammond) under extreme stress because she has just learned her husband has had a four-year affair with one of her best friends and because a man she ran away with when she was 17 (the tawdry escapade ended with violence) has shown up at her home, The Last Secret is a book that you know can only end badly. While plenty of other books have a similar trajectory, the authors write the story with great insight or graceful writing or a character about whom we care or an unexpected ending that flattens us with its horror (Louise Erdrich's Shadow Tag comes to mind as a book whose author does all of these). While Morris does provide some insight into how the stressors Nora experiences affect her emotionally and intellectually, I found I didn't care much about Nora or her family members. The ending is predictable (the "last surprise" is not surprising at all), and the writing is pedestrian.

Will I now try to find and read Songs in Ordinary Time? No way!

Favorite passages: None

Monday, March 21, 2011

Port Mortuary, by Patricia Cornwell

How could I have wasted my time reading another Patricia Cornwell book? The last one was a hot mess, and Port Mortuary is no better. Written in the first person from the perspective of Dr. Kay Scarpetta, most of the book takes place over a period of about 36 hours as Kay returns from a six-month sojourn with the military to her lab in Massachusetts, where all hell has broken loose. I do not like Scarpetta better as a result of being in her head for 300-some pages; indeed, her constant assessing of her relationships with Lucy, Benton, and Marino is beyond annoying. Further, her sudden guilt over something that happened when her career was first beginning seems ridiculously contrived. Ugh, ugh, ugh.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown

The Weird Sisters are actually the thirty-something Andreas sisters--Rosalind, Bianca, and Cordelia, named for characters in Shakespeare's plays. Not coincidentally, their father is a Shakespeare scholar at a liberal arts college in small-town Ohio. Rosalind, a math professor, has never really left Barnwell. When her fiance leaves for a one-year appointment at Oxford and her mother is diagnosed with breast cancer, she moves in with her parents to help them and comfort herself.

Meanwhile, the two younger sisters are having serious crises of their own. Bianca (known as Bean) has been living the high life in New York City--financed by stealing from her employers and using her wiles to seduce men who will pay for drinks, dinner, or more. When her crimes are discovered, she escapes to her parents' home. Initially, she tells no one of her difficulties. Also secretive is Cordelia (Cordy) who has been living a nomadic "hippy-style" life but heads for home when she learns she is pregnant.

As the sisters deal with once again living under the same roof and coping with the stress of their mother's illness, they must figure out how their complicated relationships with each other and their parents have both sustained and limited them. Each sister must work through questions about who and what they want to be and where they want to do it. The direction ultimately taken by each sister is signaled fairly early in the book, making the ending rather predictable.

Two aspects of the writing are noteworthy. First, the family often communicates through Shakespeare quotes. While Brown's command of Shakespeare is impressive, the habit becomes a bit annoying (perhaps it is supposed to, as it certainly exemplifies a frustrating opaqueness in the family's communication). Second, the book is written in the first person plural from the perspective of all three sisters. This technique is interesting but ultimately I did not care for it; perhaps if the author had separated the perspectives near the end of the book when the sisters began to find themselves, the technique might have aligned better with what I take to be the book's theme.

Favorite passages:
We came home because we were failures. (The first sentence--and I like it.)

Perhaps you never liked your name. Perhaps you took every opportunity to change it: a new school, for example, where you would test out life with some pale echo of your real name--Elizabeth to Bitsy, wouldn't that be cute? A whole new you. You tried your middle name, provided it was suitable and not embarrassing, as middle names are wont to be. Or perhaps you were one of those poor souls whose well-meaning parents, in honor of some long-dead ancestor, gave you a name no contemporary soul should have to bear. Like Evelyn or Leslie or Laurie for a boy. Or Florence or Mildred or Doris for a girl--not bad names, you understood, just woefully dated, guaranteeing years of playground torture or a feeling you were destined for a rocking chair and an old folks' home long before your time.

Another family might have made preparations. Another mother might have cooked casseroles in Corningware and frozen them, labeled with instructions. Another trio of daughters might have embroidered a hospital gown, written a song in her honor, brought along massage oils and aromatherapy candles to ease her transition. For all Rose's talk, we brought only us. Unsure of what to ask, uncomfortable with the illness of a woman who had nursed us through all of ours, armed with only the books we were reading, and not entirely undamaged and unbruised ourselves. Our mother was inches away from us, but we hardly knew how she was feeling--scared? Sad? Resigned?

Long ago, she had thought bravery equaled wandering, the power was in the journey. Now she knew that, for her, it took no courage to leave, strength came from returning. Strength lay in staying.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Bad Blood, by John Sandford

Bad Blood is the fourth title in John Sandford's Virgil Flowers series. I've enjoyed the earlier titles, but the crimes that Virgil is called in to help solve lead to the discovery of widespread sexual abuse against children of families in a bizarre cult-like religion. The crimes are so disturbing that it is difficult to read about Virgil's escapades with the local sheriff. An unpleasant read.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

After This, by Alice McDermott

Alice McDermott's territory is Irish-American family life on Long Island, and that is the territory that After This explores. The book opens with the details of a day in the life of Mary, a 30-year-old office worker who is worried that her prospects for marriage seem so bleak. But those prospects are about to change, as she meets her future husband, World War II veteran John Keane, at the Schrafft's lunch counter.

McDermott then jumps ahead to the day on which the Keanes' first child is conceived. From there, we leap to a day at the beach with their three children, Mary heavily pregnant with the fourth and John having premonitions of his death. The pattern continues, as McDermott skips months and years and changes narrators--both of the Keanes, their four children (Jacob, Michael, Annie, and Clare) get their moments in the spotlight, as do Pauline, Mary's gossipy and virginal work colleague who becomes a virtual family member, and other characters who cross the Keans' path. Sometimes the vignettes deal directly with a major family event, such as Clare's home birth, assisted by a neighbor who works as a nurse in a mental hospital; others glance off those events, such as Jacob's death in Vietnam.

McDermott has said that the book is about the "pain and sweetness of life," but the vignettes that comprise the book contain far more pain than sweetness: John wakes up one morning with a sore leg and directs his son to construct a traction device rather than going to the doctor. (In describing his response to this sudden ailment, McDermott tosses in, almost as an aside, that he "will die alone"; although, in fact, he won't die for many years, this kind of foreshadowing is a tool McDermott uses quite often.) Annie accompanies her friend to an abortion clinic and breaks down because the book she is reading--A Farewell to Arms--is so sad. Pauline falls off a bus and ends up in a mental hospital; when released, she comes to live with the Keanes "for a few weeks"--and never leaves. Clare becomes pregnant as a teenager.

McDermott writes beautifully, and the characters and the Keanes' marriage are well-drawn. I am not, however, a fan of the way she has constructed the novel as a series of vignettes in the lives of the characters. Some of the vignettes are lovely--the story of Mary and Annie waiting in line at the World's Fair to see the Pieta is my favorite--and together they do create a kaleidoscopic view of the Keane family's life. Despite a love of kaleidoscopes, however, I prefer another form for a novel.

Favorite passages:
In her laugh was every confidence Mary had ever shared with Pauline about her husband's failings, every unguarded criticism, every angry, impromptu, frustrated critique of his personality, his manners, his sometimes morbid, sometimes inscrutable, sometimes impatient ways. a repository, Pauline and her laugh, for every moment in their marriage when Mary Keane had not loved her husband, when love itself had seemed a misapprehension, a delusion (a stranger standing outside of Schrafft's transformed into an answered prayer), and marriage--which Pauline had had sense enough to spurn--simply an awkward pact with a stranger, any stranger, John or George, Tom, Dick, or Harry.

Her silence was a remarkable concoction: hurt, impatience, recrimination, blood-red anger, fear, worry--the kind of concoction only a long marriage can brew.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

You Know When the Men Are Gone

You Know When the Men Are Gone is a series of linked short stories set at Fort Hood, Texas, among the soldiers deployed (many for the second or third time) in Iraq or Afghanistan and their wives. In the title story, Meg Brady becomes obsessed with her new neighbor--a Serbian woman with toddler twins and a large dog that barks loudly. The only food Natalya seems able to cook is cabbage, and her parenting skills seem a bit lacking. Meg agrees to babysit the twins the night before the husbands are due home, and what Natalya does next is a surprise.

Two stories deal with infidelity. In "Inside the Break," Kailani hacks into her husband's email and finds reason to suspect that he is sleeping with a female soldier while deployed. "Leave" presents the opposite case--Chief Warrant Officer Nick Cash suspects his wife is cheating while he is deployed. He pretends that he has given up his leave, but comes home and camps out in the basement, waiting for evidence that he is wrong--or right.

Other stories focus on the process of reintegrating when the deployment ends. In "The Last Stand," Kit Murphy has returned home with a severe foot injury, only to discover that his wife just wants to go home to her parents (where she has lived during his deployment) and "start all over again. . . . Alone." Carla Wolenski and her husband, a company commander, struggle to understand what each has gone through while apart--she has given birth, he has seen unthinkable pain. Their story is titled "You Survived the War, Now Survive the Homecoming."

The collection ends with "Gold Star," in which Josie Schaeffer is trying to cope with her husband's death and the gradual loss of her sensory memories of his physical presence.

Siobhan Fallon knows the territory she is writing about--she is an Army wife who lived at Fort Hood while her husband was deployed twice to Iraq. The stories are brutally honest and are both moving and troubling. As the United States approaches ten years at war, anyone who wants to understand how serving in the military affects families should read this book. . . . and wait for a similar book about the experiences of women soldiers and their spouses. I only wish Fallon had devoted a bit more attention to the children of soldiers.

Favorite passage:
She kissed his forehead, leaving her lips pressed near his hairline until he moved away, nestling deep under his covers. Ellen knew that soon he wouldn't let her kiss him goodnight anymore, that there was a time limit on a child's affection, that each year, month, week, day, whittled away at it until he, too, would stretch and grow out of childhood and into something prickly and strange.

He would put his big hands around her back, and she felt enclose din his strength and knew he was hers again, at least for a little while. But now she had forgotten the texture of his uniform under her cheek, the sound of his boots slipping off his feet and hitting the floor, the feel of his fingertips on her back. She was losing him all over again.