Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Sweet Relief of Missing Children, by Sarah Braunstein

One of the blurbs on this book's dust jacket says that the multiple characters created by author Braunstein "come together like pieces of broken glass from an object that can never be reconstructed." That lovely bit of description seems to suggest a book about broken lives touching each other tangentially in a way that has some beauty, albeit a fractured beauty. Well...there are certainly many broken lives--and numerous missing children--in the book, and to some extent their lives do touch, though not in a way that seems particularly meaningful. Unfortunately, there is no beauty to be found.

The book's first chapter introduces us to Leonora, a young girl we are told will disappear. Braunstein then introduces legions of other characters, and we wonder what their significance is in the story of Leonora. But the opening chapter about Leonora is in many ways a distraction. Although Leonora reappears periodically and she does, in fact, disappear, the book isn't really about Leonora. It's about children disappearing physically--more often by running or simply wandering away than by being snatched--but it's also about children who disappear emotionally, by getting pregnant too young, marrying the wrong person, and losing faith in their dreams.

The book's structure is disjointed, moving from character to character and across decades with no discernible pattern. Some characters assume importance for one or two chapters and are never heard from again, while others thread their way through the book. All, we can be confident, are disappointed in life, distanced from those closest to them, and afraid or shamed. While certain events and scenes are painted in excruciating detail, other large questions raised in the story are left unanswered. Together, the stories seem to tell us that life is meaningless, hope is an illusion, and shame and fear are the most salient emotions.

Does Sarah Braunstein illuminate the human condition or express herself in a way that compensates for reading 360 profoundly depressing pages? Sadly, for me she does not.

Favorite passage:
Age certainly doesn't predict self-knowledge, but it usually predicts some awareness of lack of self-knowledge.
(This is a clever sentence--but I think it is utterly untrue; perhaps choosing it as a favorite passage is emblematic of how I feel about this book.)

Monday, April 25, 2011

Three Stages of Amazement, by Carol Edgarian

Lena Rusch's life is so stressful--and Carol Edgarian describes it so well--that reading about it is painful. With her husband Charlie Pepper, she has recently relocated from Boston to the Bay Area, a move that meant leaving behind a much-loved job at WGBH. She has a five-year-old son Theo and an infant daughter, whose twin died at birth; the grief of losing Sylvie and the frightening medical challenges faced by Willa are debilitating. Meanwhile, Charlie works all the time, trying to get his start-up off the ground. He has a potential investor in the business, but has not told Lena that the investor is her uncle Cal, whom she despises. Nor has he mentioned that Lena's former lover Alessandro works for Cal.

While Lena is at the heart of the novel, Edgarian uses multiple narrators, including Cal, his wife Ivy, Alessandro, Charlie, and Theo. Cal and Ivy are wealthy beyond imagining (the engagement party they give for their daughter costs more than a million dollars), and Cal seems to enjoy his work as a venture capitalist, but their relationships--even with their daughter--are shallow. As the economy tanks (the book is set in 2009), the lives of Cal, Ivy, Charlie, and Lena all take turns for the worse as well, some expected, some surprising.

One of Edgarian's greatest achievements is her limning of Theo who--despite being only five--is a fully realized character. Quirky, bright, and hurting, Theo charms while breaking your heart as he pays the emotional price for the high-stress existence that Lena and Charlie live.

The first half of this book is emotionally wrenching; it also offers a view of wealth that was interesting (although somewhat repugnant). As Cal and Ivy's story gets more attention, however, I grew less interested. And Edgarian stumbled a bit as she tried to bring all the book's threads to a close that reflects Charlie and Lena's maturation. Nonetheless, I think Three Stages of Amazement is worth reading for its portrayal of family life in the twenty-first century and for Edgarian's lovely prose.

By the way, the three stages of amazement are silence, disbelief, and talk.

Favorite passages:
Grief was a stalker. It lurked in the china cabinet and in the waiting room at the dentist's and behind the switch on the hall light. it wined itself inside the tongue of sneakers and the click of pens and the heels of socks. Tea bags were infused with it, as were cereal boxes, board games, and the mail as it passed through the slot. Contrary to reputation, it never looked drab; it didn't care a whit about time. . . . it wasn't elegant. It wasn't easy or smooth. It rose with the sun and hid in the corners of fog. Surprisingly, it preferred hello to good-bye. It showed up on the beach and acted churlish in the park.

Theo refused. He'd been tugged at enough. He was tired. He had been "the best boy" in the hospital and, later, at that school. he thought , at the very least, he had a different kind of morning coming to him. He wanted to run tucked inside the flap of his mother's raincoat with them both pretending he was a baby bat. He wanted to tell her a story and have her listen carefully--a story that had no beginning or end.

Forgetting means remembering at an inconvenient time.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

South of the Border, West of the Sun, by Haruki Murakami

South of the Border, West of the Sun is the most straight-forward of the Murakami books I have read (this is number five, I think)--it features no surreal elements or multiple narrators. At the heart of the book is the first-person narrator, Hajime. The book opens with Hajime describing two of his early relationships. At 12, he and Shimamoto, both only children, are inseparable; after school, they walk home (slowed by Shimamoto's bad leg) and then sit together and listen to music. When they go to different junior highs, however, they lose touch, and Hajime moves on to his high school girlfriend, Izumi, whom he betrays with her own cousin.

After eight years of a mind-numbing job with a textbook publisher, Hajime meets and marries Yukiko. Her father loans Hajime the money to open two jazz bars, which he enjoys running. Hajime and Yukiko have two children, and he is happy...or at least content.

Then Shimamoto comes into his bar, the Robin's Nest, and his childhood love for her blossoms into an adult obsession. Her appearances at the bar are sporadic and she will tell him little about her life in the 25 years since their childhood friendship ended. But his interest in her intensifies, fed in part by memories of a closeness Hajime has not felt with anyone else. When they finally spend a passionate night together, Hajime is ready to leave his wife and children for Shimamoto....but she clearly has other ideas. Hajime struggles to define who he is in the aftermath of their "affair."

While I appreciate the pull that an old love can exert, especially when one is at a phase of life when there seem to be more questions than answers, South of the Border, West of the Sun fell flat for me. Though sometimes frustrated by them, I missed the mysterious elements of Murakami's other works (the mysteries here--why Hajime's father-in-law seems to be setting him up for a fall [nothing ever comes of it] and where, with whom, and how Shimamoto lives--don't seem to matter very much), as well as the complexity of not only the plot lines but also the novels' constructions.

Favorite passage:
. . . probably is a word who weight is incalculable.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Creative Life: True Tales of Inspiration, by Julia Cameron

Julia Cameron is the author of the well-known The Artist's Way and its many spin-offs, none of which I have ever read. Perhaps I made a mistake by picking up The Creative Life without having read her first 30 or 31 books. The Creative Life is essentially a diary, intended (judging by the subtitle) to help readers learn how to find inspiration in their lives. But the book is actually quite dull--we read innumerable vignettes about dinner with a particular friend, being reminded that they always order the same dish and, at some point in the course of the meal, remind each other that writing "is a process." We read about her piano lessons--but without any in-depth discussion of the music or her struggles to play it. Ditto the classes she teaches, the run-throughs of plays she attends, and a variety of her other experiences.

Not recommended.

Favorite passage: None

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Ambitiously subtitled A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, Freakonomics was a big hit when it was published in the mid 2000s. Among its devotees were my younger son, who frequently referenced its unusual analyses of such diverse topics as the link between abortion and crime rates, cheating by public school teachers and sumo wrestlers, and bias among contestants on The Weakest Link. I recently got around to reading the book, which has been on my "to read" shelf for years.

Author Levitt, a University of Chicago economist, loves nothing more than an unusual question and a data set that will help him answer it. And, with the help of journalist Dubner, he has produced an interesting look at such questions as "Why do drug dealers live with their parents?" and "What makes a perfect parent?" While I am deeply suspicious about some of the causal links Levitt posits (I lack the statistical skills to even consider trying to "disprove" them), his analyses are thought-provoking and engagingly presented.

In one of the blog posts appended to this "revised and expanded edition," the authors defend the book against the criticism that the book has no unifying theme (they actually agree that it has no theme and suggest a theme is not necessary). Yet, early on, they lay out several "fundamental ideas": (1) incentives are the cornerstone of modern life, (2) the conventional wisdom is often wrong, (3) dramatic effects often have distant causes, (4) experts use their informational advantage to serve their own agenda, and (5) knowing what to measure and how to measure it makes a complicated world much less so. All of the cases that Levitt and Dubner present do support one or more of these ideas--in my view, that's a theme (or set of themes).

So, while I wouldn't count myself a devotee of the book, I did enjoy being challenged by the counterintuitive findings that Levitt and Dubner explore in Freakonomics.

Favorite passage:
If I got to make three wishes, perhaps one of them would be that I might turn into a truly interdisciplinary social scientist who uses data to inform human behavior in ways that both shed light on and draw upon not only economics, but sociology, political science, and psychology as well. But let's be realistic. I'm having trouble even mastering the tools of my own discipline. (This passage is reflective of Levitt's self-deprecating approach.)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Likeness, by Tana French

In The Likeness, Irish author Tana French picks up the sidekick character from her first book, In the Woods, and makes her the narrator of a highly improbable story. Cassie Maddox was seriously damaged--professionally and psychologically--from the fallout of the mistakes she and former partner/best friend Rob Ryan made in investigating the murder of a 12-year-old girl. She has transferred to Domestic Violence, where she is miserable but pretending not to be.

Then Cassie's boyfriend Sam catches the case of a murder victim who looks exactly like Cassie and is using the fake name Cassie used in her years doing undercover work. Cassie's former boss in Undercover convinces her and Sam that they should tell people the victim (Lexie Madison) is not dead and have Cassie assume her identity, moving in with the four grad students Lexie lived with. What? The idea strains credulity, as does much of the plot that follows.

Not surprisingly, Cassie (orphaned as a child and brought up by a loving but rather uninvolved aunt and uncle) finds the excessively close-knit, family-like bond that the five friends have created attractive--she actually enjoys spending all her time in the group, despite the fact there's a good chance one of them killed her doppelganger. When the mystery finally unfolds, French once again leaves several threads hanging.

French clearly has an interest in how broken people find relationships that make them feel whole, as well as in how people deal with their darker impulses. She also can put words and sentences together beautifully. These are serious and interesting subjects; since (in my view--obviously, since her books are bestsellers, many disagree), however, she doesn't have the gift of plotting a good mystery/thriller, I wish she'd try her hand at a serious novel that deals with those subjects.

Favorite passages:
If I had ever wanted a house, though, it would have been a lot like this one. This had nothing in common with the characterless pseudohouses all my friends were buying, shrunken middle-of-nowhere shoeboxes that come with great spurts of sticky euphemisms ("architect-designed bijou residence in brand-new luxury community") and sell for twenty times your income and are built to last just till the developer can get them off his hands. This was the real thing, one serious do-not-fuck-with-me house with the strength and pride and grace to outlast everyone who saw it. Tiny swirling flecks of snow blurred the ivy and hung in the dark windows, and the silence of it was so huge that I felt like I could put my hand straight through the glossy surface of the photo and down into its cool depths.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Fates Will Find Their Way, by Hannah Pittard

Sixteen-year-old Nora Lindell, who looked good in her private school uniform with the knee socks sagging, disappears on Halloween, leaving behind a father and sister, plus a pack of teenage boys who seem unable to recover from the excitement of her disappearance. What actually happened to Nora remains a mystery, but the boys--based on various sightings over the years--create a variety of possible explanations. Perhaps she got into a Catalina with a strange man, who drove her into the woods, where she died trying to escape. Perhaps, having learned she was pregnant after a brief coupling with a public-school boy, she ran away to Arizona, where she married an older Mexican man, gave birth to twin girls, and eventually ran away yet again. Perhaps she was in Mumbai when the bombings occurred, involved in a love affair with a female henna tattoo artist.

Meanwhile, the boys grow up and build ostensibly adult lives. Their fantasies about Nora are intertwined with stories of their "real" lives, from the disastrous mass masturbatory event at the movie night they hosted as seniors in high school, to the sad breakdown of one marriage after three miscarriages. When one of their group dies in prison (where he was confined after molesting another's 13-year-old daughter) and another leaves town to be with Nora's younger sister, the men come to a realization that the lives they have built are their real lives and the day will come when they think of Nora for the last time.

Pittard does what seems to me (a 60-year-old woman) a remarkable job of inhabiting the minds of 16-year-old boys. At times she is so grossly on target that I had to remind myself, as I cringed, that the author was a woman. On the less positive side, the chronological randomness in describing the boys' real lives is confusing (the imagined futures for Nora are much easier to track), and I found the first person plural narrator as ineffective here as in The Weird Sisters. A month ago, I could not have named a novel written from a first person plural perspective, and now I have read two...but hope not to read another any time soon.

Favorite passages:
Often it would take a wife's hand on the shoulder to pull us away from these reveries. "Honey," she might say, "the coals. Are they ready? The kids are hungry." And they would always be tender at these moments, always impossibly understanding, as though they could see our thoughts, read our fears, our worries. Sometimes, it's like they almost understand how overwhelming it all is--to be a man, to be a father, a husband, a human being, responsible for the lives of others.

At the end of the day, we find ourselves somewhat unprepared, standing for a final moment at our bedroom windows, for the obvious realization that this--this, all around us--is our life.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Girl in the Green Raincoat, by Laura Lippman

The title character in this novella catches the eye of Laura Lippman's intrepid detective Tess Monaghan, who is on bedrest while awaiting the birth of her first child (yes, Tess and Crow are having a baby--who would have predicted that?). Each day, the girl walks her similarly attired miniature greyhound in the park across from Tess' home; one day, the little dog dashes out of the park by itself. The girl in the green raincoat does not reappear.

In homage to Rear Window and The Daughter of Time (which I am unfamiliar with), Tess applies her considerable detecting skills to find out what happened to the missing woman, using her best friend Whitney and her colleague Mrs. Blossom to do the field work. They discover that the missing woman was the third wife of a man whose first two wives died suspiciously, as did a one-time fiancee (who turns out to be the third wife's older sister).

Hormones, inactivity, and worry may be having an effect on Tess' reasoning skills, as she gets a few things wrong in the course of this short, but amusing book. Nonetheless, the mystery is eventually solved, Tess' daughter is born, and we can look forward to what learning what happens when Tess becomes a working mom in the next title in Lippman's series.

One interesting thing about the book is that it was first published in serial form in The New York Times Magazine, and Lippman worked to structure each chapter to not only contribute to the unraveling of the central mystery but also to tell a "mini-story" of its own. It's cleverly done and reinforces my belief that Lippman is one of the best writers working in the mystery genre.

Favorite passage:
Also, there was a monkey. This struck Tess as the most trenchant bit of film criticism that she had ever heard from her father, something that could equal Andrew Sarris's auteur theory. She would run this past Lloyd, the film student, the Tess Monaghan theory of awfulness in movies, summed up by one line: Also, there was a monkey.