Saturday, December 29, 2012

Best of 2012

I feel like I read a lot of mediocre books this year, so I was happy when I scanned through my 2012 posts to find some pretty good books hidden among the dross. Several of them were audible books I listened to, a new format for me. I still listen mostly while walking, but I guess I am a convert, as I currently have six books on my iPod waiting to be "read."

Best Novel
House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton. It's unlike me to pick a classic as my favorite novel of the year, but when I think back to what I read in 2012, House of Mirth and its central character, Lily Bart, come immediately to mind. Wharton perfectly captures the world of wealthy New Yorkers in the early 20th century; similarly, we understand exactly the choice that Lily must make in order to maintain her status in that social world--Lily must marry for money. Yet she just cannot force herself to do it, sabotaging herself each time she is close to an engagement. And the final outcome can only be tragic.

Honorable Mention: Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell; Faith, by Jennifer Haigh; America, America, by Ethan Canin; History of Love, by Nicole Krauss; The Story of Beautiful Girl, by Rachel Simon.

Best Mystery
Sister, by Rosamund Lupton. No other mystery came close to Sister (and I read quite a few that I didn't bother to write up on the blog). It was well-written, cleverly structured, scary, and moving. The book recounts what happened from the time Bee learned that her sister Tess was missing and boarded a flight from New York to London through Bee's unraveling of the mystery of Tess's death.

Best Short Stories
War Dances, by Sherman Alexie. I didn't read too many short story collections this year, but War Dances, which includes poems and brief prose pieces as well as short stories, would be a worthy selection whether I had read two collections or two hundred. Alexie's vision is dark and humorous; most of his stories are about men, many about men and their fathers.  Parts of the story "The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless" were so well written and so spot on with their description of the function of popular culture in our lives that I literally thought, "This might be the perfect story" while reading it. 

Best Nonfiction
Life on the Line, by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas.  I'm a bit surprised to find myself listing this book as my favorite nonfiction book of the year, but it's the book I talked about the most and remember most vividly--perhaps in part because I really did not care for chef-author Grant Achatz. But his story, particularly the story of his battle with tongue cancer, was compelling and even inspiring. His co-author and partner in his renowned Chicago restaurant business, Nick Kokonas, kept Achatz's arrogance from becoming overwhelming. It's definitely a book worth reading.

Honorable Mention: Yes, Chef, by Marcus Samuelsson; Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell; When Women Were Birds, by Terry Tempest Williams.  

Best Poetry
As usual, I didn't read as much poetry as I think I should have. However, both collections that I read--The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni and Good Poems, American Places (selected by Garrison Keillor) were wonderful and I highly recommend them both.

Also as usual, I continue to find lots of great writing in magazines, although I don't keep track of magazine articles I have read (perhaps I should). If you're looking for examples, you might start with David Brooks's annual Sidney Awards ( and

Happy reading in 2013.

Goldberg Variations, by Susan Isaacs

Goldberg Variations starts with a character so overdrawn that I immediately thought this was one of Isaacs's comic novels. Seventy-nine-year-old Gloria Goldberg Goldberg Garrison is the head of a company called Glory, which tools semis equipped as mobile beauty salons/boutiques around the Western United States, stopping in small to mid-size towns to give women hungry for beauty advice/services makeovers. Gloria, like her company, is all about appearances (she changed her name to Garrison so people would not know she's Jewish).  She recently split with her best friend and heir apparent, Keith Thompson, when she refused to visit his comatose partner in the hospital. Now she has invited her three adult grandchildren whom she hardly knows--Raquel, Daisy, and Matthew--to fly from New York to Santa Fe for the weekend so she can choose one to take over the company.

The viewpoint rotates among the four major characters, and our first chapters with the grandchildren are also mildly amusing. But then Isaacs surprises us by turning the book into a long conversation among the four characters (with liberal doses of their interior thoughts as well) about who they are and who they want to be. Unfortunately, I found this became tedious rather quickly. Zzzzz.

Favorite passage:
I wish, like the ancient Egyptians, I could believe that the furniture I brought into my pyramid would be with me for eternity. Swedish farmhouse-style would wear well.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Blink:The Power of Thinking without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell

Journalist Malcolm Gladwell is a genius. Inspired by a personal experience--being stopped by the police because his hair resembled that of a serial rapist--he brings together research and historical and contemporary anecdotal evidence in utterly unexpected ways. Who, for example, would think to compare studies of how autistic and nonautistic people view the film Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf? with the performance of police officers under stress (the police officers who shot Amadou Diallo to be specific)?  He then uses all of this information to explain a complex phenomenon in a way that is understandable to the non-genius reader.

In Blink, his focus is on rapid cognition--the thinking that takes place subconsciously and extremely fast (in the "blink" of an eye). Gladwell's research demonstrates that rapid cognition--he also calls it "thin-slicing"--is powerful, sometimes in negative ways. Subconscious racial or gender stereotyping illustrate this notion. Rapid cognition can also be subverted through stress or time pressure, as evidenced by the case of the police officers who suffer a "temporary autism." 

On the other hand, rapid cognitions based on deep knowledge and study can be more effective than extremely logical decisions based on a surfeit of information. To illustrate this point, Gladwell draws on the work of marriage therapists who can predict whether a couple will divorce from watching a brief interaction between the two, psychologists who have studied micro facial expressions and can "see" what people are thinking in a way other observers cannot, military tacticians, and emergency room physicians diagnosing heart attacks. In all of these cases, thin slicing based on deep knowledge is a more effective way to make a decision than gathering and analyzing more and more information. 

Knowing when to use rapid cognition and when to rely on more measured and logical decision-making is important, as is not allowing our thin-slicing to be disrupted by stress and time pressure. When we understand the gift of instinctive decision making, Gladwell would say, we should be responsible enough to use the gift wisely. 

My description of the book does not do it justice--READ IT!!

Favorite passage:
The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

My Berlin Kitchen: A Love Story (with Recipes), by Luisa Weiss

My Berlin Kitchen is a memoir not just of Luisa Weiss's life in the kitchen (she is the creator of The Wednesday Chef blog) but of her life generally. Weiss was born in Berlin to an Italian mother and an American father. Their divorce when Luisa was four started her life of ping-ponging across the Atlantic. This life shaped Luisa's vision of herself; near the end of the book, she says, "When you have one parent in one country and one parent in another, when you are the one who travels back and forth, you learn to split your life very carefully."

As Weiss discusses her childhood, she talks about how and from whom she learned to cook; the vignettes about her developing life in the kitchen have a charming warmth. Soon enough, however,  she reaches her 20s, when she lives and works in Paris. While there, she falls in love with a wonderful man named Max and moves to Berlin with him. When she cannot find a job in Berlin, she quickly bails, heading for New York City. There, over the course of nearly a decade, she builds a career in publishing, starts her well-received blog, and builds a relationship with Sam. At the same time, she experiences a deep longing to return to Berlin, something in which Sam has no interest. Over what seemed an interminable stretch, she agonizes over what to do, ultimately breaking up with Sam and (after reuniting with Max) deciding to move to Berlin. The remainder of the book details her efforts to establish anew life in Berlin with Max, their engagement, and their eventual wedding.

In nearly every chapter, Weiss talks about cooking and food and includes a recipe. Generally, the commentary on cooking and food is well-integrated with the narrative of Weiss's life, and there's a deftness to Weiss's writing about food (and about place) that is not always present in writing about other aspects of her life. For me, the writing about cooking and food was the book's strength. As I've mentioned before, I may be too old for the angst of 20-somethings. but younger readers may find both aspects of the book equally engaging.

Favorite passage:
And when I got home in the dark afternoons in these first few weeks, I ate scores of Christmas cookies, softened in hot tea and chewed on the couch, my feet curled up under me for warmth. Biting into a chewy, fragrant Basler Leckerli, I tasted my childhood, a hundred cookies munched by a candlelit tree, and I tasted the longing for home I had felt each time the cookie-baking season rolled around in New York. I tasted the struggle of sky-high expectations. And I tasted a little bit of triumph too, because at the end of the day, I was home.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Short Takes

One of the benefits of an Audible subscription is that Audible from time to time offers freebies--less than book-length downloads at no charge. Recently, I listened to two of these freebies. One was an Arthur Conan Doyle "holiday" story, "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle," read by Alan Cummings. To all the Sherlock Holmes aficionados out there: sorry, but this story is just tedious. I was listening to it while walking and--despite the fact that the story is less than an hour long and beautifully read--I kept realizing that I had completely tuned out and missed numerous brilliant deductions and plot twists.

On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed the excerpts from Listening Is an Act of Love, a selection of excerpts from StoryCorps oral history interviews. If you, like me, blink back tears as you listen to the StoryCorps pieces on NPR's Morning Edition, you will love this collection--undoubtedly selected to pull at the heartstrings. Or, if you need to be reminded that people can be loving and giving, this collection might be an appropriate and uplifting holiday gift to yourself.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother's Dementia. With Refreshments, by Alex Witchel

While the breezy subtitle of this book might suggest that it is a humorous take on having a parent with dementia (is that even possible?), such is not the case. All Gone is a very sad memoir focused on the author's relationship with her mother, from childhood to her mother's old age. While that relationship was essentially strong, other family relationships were problematic--Witchel's father was habitually cold and angry; she and her sister became estranged while her sister was going through fertility treatments (they reconciled when her sister was diagnosed with breast cancer); and her brothers do not seem present in her adult life. Meanwhile, trying to oversee her mother's care while working full time had serious negative effects on Witchel's own health. I repeat: A sad story.

Promotion for the book has emphasized the cooking aspect of the story--Witchel does talk about making her mother's signature dishes (and provides recipes). But she does not find cooking the soul-restoring activity I was expecting. In fact, she says, "The transcendent comforts of cooking had completely escaped me. . . . There was no healing, no salvation." So, one might ask, why bother to include the food element? Perhaps because Witchel is a food writer and writing about food is in her comfort zone--whereas writing about her family isn't. It's not clear to me.

Overall, there's not a lot of comfort in this story. The book is a quick read, but I'm not motivated to make the recipes, didn't get any insights into how to handle your parents aging, and didn't feel particularly moved by the author's story.

Favorite passages:
It is an intimacy to cook with someone else, inhabit his space.

Part of what defines a person is who they are to you. As long as you're still there, so are they. . . . That's why it's difficult to see a parent in any other role.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz

Oscar Wao is a Dominican sci-fi/fantasy nerd growing up in New Jersey in the 1980s.  The high point of Oscar's romantic life comes when he is seven and has two girlfriends for the span of a week. By the time he reaches his teen years, he is overweight, believes he is destined to be the Dominican Tolkien, and so geeky he seems destined to be a virgin forever.  He goes to Rutgers, where he continues to have a stunted social life and tries to commit suicide; the attempt is unsuccessful, however, and he graduates from college, returns to live with his mother and teach at the high school he hated. Then, on a fateful summer visit to the Dominican Republic, he falls in love with a semi-retired puta, whose boyfriend is a brutal police officer.

Despite this recounting of the events of Oscar's life, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is really the story of Oscar's family, the de Leons. Diaz creates a cast of seemingly cursed characters (the fuku) that includes Oscar's beautiful and talented sister Lola; his mother Beli, whose tragic and rebellious youth is unknown to her children, who know her as rigidly strict and chronically ill; his physician grandfather Abelard, who was killed trying to protect his daughters from the rapacious dictator Trujillo. Through the multigenerational family history, Diaz also recounts the history of the Dominican Republic under Trujillo's brutal regime--as well as the story of the diaspora.

The story is told by two narrators. The first--and most prominent--is not identified until well into the book, although it is clear he knows both Oscar and Lola well. He is Yunior, a sometime boyfriend of Lola's and Oscar's college roommate. He, too, is an important character in the novel--and his relationship to the de Leons clearly shapes him. Yunior's narration is liberally laced with untranslated Spanish; obscenities and hipster street slang; pop culture references--to sci fi/fantasy/anime novels, movies, and comic books;  ruminations on Dominican history and mythology; and references to serious literature. Yunior tells Oscar's story in chronological order but intersperses it with the family history told from the more recent past to the most distant.

The second narrator is Lola. Although her sections are relatively brief, her voice (especially as read by Staci Snell in the audio version) is winning--vulnerable, tender, and wise. As a female reader who is not  hip or particularly geeky, I wished for more of Lola's voice, as her story was my favorite part of the book. In fact, I wondered if I would have enjoyed Beli's story more if Diaz had given her her own voice  (raising some questions in my mind about why Diaz decided to include Lola as a narrator but left everyone else's story in Yunior's hands).

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is not for everyone; I know some of my book group colleagues would cringe at he language. Others would find the geek culture references indecipherable. While I certainly did not understand all the references (or the Spanish), I did admire the way in which Diaz put together a rich, multifaceted narrative populated with three-dimensional characters, presented in a 21st-century mash-up style.

Favorite passages:

If you didn't grow up like I did then you don't know, and if you don't know it's probably better you don't judge.

Poor Oscar. Without even realizing it he’d fallen into one of those Let’s-Be-Friends Vortexes, the bane of nerdboys everywhere. These relationships were love’s version of a stay in the stocks, in you go, plenty of misery guaranteed and what you got out of it besides bitterness and heartbreak nobody knows. Perhaps some knowledge of self and of women. Perhaps.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Barbarian Nurseries, by Hector Tobar

Araceli Ramirez works for Scott and Maureen Torres-Thompson, a couple who became wealthy in one of the tech bubbles but has  recently become less wealthy because of bad investments. In fact, they have laid off the gardener and the nanny, leaving Araceli--the housekeeper/cook--as their only domestic employee. A prickly frustrated artist, Araceli is not happy when she realizes they expect her to add child-care duties to her tasks. Of course, Scott and Maureen are not happy either, as Scott is worried about their finances and Maureen is mostly worried about her image. One night, after Maureen spends thousands of dollars to have the mini rainforest in their backyard torn out and replaced with a cactus garden, the two have an argument that becomes a physical confrontation.

The next morning, Maureen takes off with their daughter, not telling anyone she is heading for a spa. At the same time, Scott decides not to come home from work that night without telling anyone. Thus, Araceli finds herself alone for the weekend with the couple's eight- and eleven-year-old sons. After two nights on their own, Araceli decides to try to take the boys to their paternal grandfather's house, but she has only an old picture of the elder Torres, with an address penciled on the back. The threesome sets out on a public transportation journey into areas of Los Angeles so unlike what young Keenan and Brandon have ever experienced that the city seems like a setting in one of Brandon's fantasy novels. After two more days, Maureen and Scott return home, find their children missing, and call the police. The rest of the novel revolves around what will happen to Araceli in the legal system.

We discussed Barbarian Nurseries at book group last night, and the differences of opinion were interesting. Some people found that the first part of the novel--the domestic set-up to the crisis--dragged but enjoyed the unraveling of Araceli's case in the legal system. Others felt exactly the opposite--they thought the beginning of the book was interesting but once the legal system was involved, the book became bogged down in politics and dragged. Some found everything about the situation at the core of the book implausible; others thought it could happen. What we generally agreed upon was that Tobar had a set of issues he wanted to talk about--how Los Angeles is divided along ethnic and class lines, what should be done about immigration, the media's role in exacerbating the city's problems--and  perhaps didn't have the novelistic chops to integrate his commentary on those issues into a novel with a believable plot and well-rounded characters. (One of our members who is familiar with Tobar's work says he is an excellent journalist.) We did, however, give him credit for not making one side heroic and the other side villainous. The major characters in the novel are all equally flawed.

T.C. Boyle's satiric Tortilla Curtain makes many of the same points that Tobar does. (A stronger dose of humor might have improved Barbarian Nurseries.) Mona Simpson's My Hollywood, which focuses on a Filipina nanny, makes similar points about parenting and caretaking of the children of wealth. I preferred Boyle's and Simpson's books to Tobar's, but I do find myself respecting his not totally successful effort.

Favorite passage:
It [the tropical garden] seemed to him it would take a village of Mexicans to keep that thing alive, a platoon of men in straw hats, wading with bare feet into the faux stream that ran through the middle of it. Pepe did it all on his own. He was a village unto himself, apparently.

Friday, November 30, 2012

May We Be Forgiven, by A.M. Homes

May We Be Forgiven recounts a year in the life of Harold Silver, a man who admits at the outset that he has no emotional life.  The events of the turbulent year render a change in Harold, and who wouldn't be changed if: his brother George had a breakdown before (or after) causing a car accident that killed a couple and injured their son; he slept with his sister-in-law Jane; he witnessed George kill Jane when George found Harold and Jane in bed; he assumed guardianship of his 12-year-old nephew Nate and his 11-year-old niece   Ashley, whom he soon learned had been sexually abused by an administrator at her boarding school; started frequenting on-line sex sites and arranging noon assignations with randy women; got fired from his job teaching Nixon studies at a commuter college; got divorced; was followed home from the A&P by a young woman with whom he tried to strike up a meaningful relationship despite the fear that she might be a missing college student much in the news; became a foster parent to Ricardo, the child whose parents were killed in George's car accident; served as a dupe in a government sting designed to take down an Israeli gun dealer George had gone into business with at the bizarre nature-camp-cum-prison where he had been confined; through one of his "nooners," gained an acquaintance with Julie Nixon Eisenhower, who hired him to edit the long-lost fiction writings of Richard Nixon; took the children to South Africa for Nate's bar mitzvah; had the book he's been working on for 17 years destroyed in a thunderstorm.

And there's more . . . much more (the book is nearly 500 pages). Some of it is mordantly funny; Homes is at her sarcastic best when describing Harold's attempts to deal with institutions, from the mental hospital where George is confined to the justice system, child welfare system, assisted living facility where Harold's mother lives, temple, and university. Some of it borders on the surreal, some is creepy (I may be too old to appreciate Harold's sexual antics). Overall, I found it all to be a bit too much, which may have been Homes's intent, as the book is in part a critique of the excess of contemporary American life.

I (certified despiser of Nixon) did enjoy the elements of May We Be Forgiven that related to Harold's work on Nixon, whom he both loved and saw as the destroyer of the American Dream, another of Homes's themes. Harold's struggle to construct the authentic deeply flawed Nixon and to maintain his feeling for Nixon in the face of thorough understanding also represent his struggle to accept himself and the members of his family.

Finally, it must be said that May We Be Forgiven feels like it should be two books (which would also help with the "too much" aspect of the reading experience)--a sardonic look at contemporary American life and the death of the American dream and a warm-hearted story on the theme of "only connect." The ending of the book is disconcertingly smarmy, as Harold enjoys Thanksgiving in the bosom of the family he has managed to create from pieces left behind by others. Somehow, this redemptive ending just doesn't work.

Favorite passages:
In all families we have the official version, the tacitly agreed-upon narrative that we tell about who we are and where we come from.

Can I allow myself to know what I know and still love Nixon as deeply as I do? Can I accept how flawed, how unresolved he was, the enormous fissures in personality, in belief, in morality?

Friday, November 23, 2012

Little Century, by Anna Keesey

Eighteen-year-old Esther Chambers grew up in Chicago; when her mother dies, however, there is nothing to keep her in the city. She seeks refuge with her father's distant cousin Ferris Pickett, a cattleman in the high desert in Oregon.  But things are not as she expected at the ranch. First, Pick asks her to stake a claim (illegal as it turns out, since she is only 18 and one must be 21 to homestead) on a piece of land that includes an important water source he hopes to control. This means she must sleep alone in a small cabin on the claim for six months. Second, she quickly learns that the community of Century is sharply divided between cattlemen and sheepherders.

As Esther becomes engaged with the idea of working her claim, befriends several of Century's more eccentric residents, and enters "an understanding" with the morally ambiguous Pick, the range war escalates through a series of increasingly violent incidents. Meanwhile, despite her promise to Pick, Esther falls for a young sheepmen, putting her in a difficult situation. The climax is ultimately more of an anti-climax, as the community essentially falls apart. An epilogue-esque final chapter ties up some stories and leaves others unresolved.

I had read several positive reviews of Little Century and wanted to like it more than I did, but it often felt like a project in an MFA creative writing program  (and Keesey is a first-time author who graduated from the Iowa Writers' Workshop).  Keesey's attempts to be lyrical often become overwrought, and the occasional brief chapters written from the perspectives of other characters are a serious flaw in the book's narrative structure.

Favorite passage:
Even with the blots and cross-outs, she likes the look of her own writing. It is solid. She herself weighs more, having written it.

The buckaroos often sing, and she knows why. The unpeopled distance and the careless cold weigh upon a person, compressing the spirit into a chunk without movement. Any two notes sung together press back and make a space for the tiny soul to warm up and swirl about.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Farther Away, by Jonathan Franzen

I am not a Jonathan Franzen fan. Unlike most readers, I didn't care for his first Great American Novel, The Corrections (or the way he accepted Oprah's endorsement long enough to sell a lot of books and then began to feel suddenly squeamish about it). I disliked his first collection of essays, How to Be Alone, and haven't yet read his second Great American Novel, Freedom, despite a ringing endorsement from my son the literary scholar (I feel use that designation so often it should be in quotes or capitals). So I can't explain why I picked Farther Away off the shelf at the library or why, when I struggled to get through it (every essay involving Franzen's beloved birds stopped me for at least a week), I renewed it twice.

However, I've finally made it through the collection and, while I don't recommend reading it cover to cover, I do like Franzen a little better having read it. The first essay, actually the 2011 commencement address that Franzen gave at Kenyon College (interestingly, also the site where Franzen's friend David Foster Wallace gave a renowned address several years earlier), began to shift my view, as Franzen argues for getting out into the world and connecting with people or animals and perhaps even loving them: "engagement with something you love compels you to face up to who you really are."

In most of the other essays, Franzen deals with what he loves--birds, the works of particular writers, David Foster Wallace (whose death Franzen continues to grieve), his parents, his brother. My favorite piece, "I Just Called to Say I Love You," begins as a rant against people talking on cellphones, particularly people saying "I Love You" on cellphones, but morphs into a reflection on 9/11 and on his parents' differing ways of loving. The piece that gave me the most to chew on was a lecture Franzen gave "On Autobiographical Fiction." The question of to what extent fiction is autobiographical comes up often in our book group discussions, and Franzen gives a nuanced response that all fiction readers should consider. Part of his response is the challenging idea that, with each subsequent book an author writes, "you have to become a different person to write the next book. The person you are already wrote the best book you could. There's no way to move forward without changing yourself."  If that is indeed how Franzen approaches his work, then I have to proffer my respect.

So, my recommendation is to dip in and out of the collection, choosing the pieces that speak to you (who, knows? Perhaps you'll enjoy "Interview with New York State" and understand "Our Relations: A Brief History") and don't try to slog through the rest.

Favorite passages:
Between me and the place where my dad is now--i.e., dead--nothing but silence can be transmitted. Nobody has more privacy than the dead.

People who like to be in control of things can have a hard time with intimacy. Intimacy is anarchic and mutual and definitionally incompatible with control.

Trying to love all of humanity may be a worthy endeavor, but, in a funny way, it keeps the focus on the self, on the self's own moral or spiritual well-being. Whereas, to love a specific person, and to identify with their struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of your self.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera

The Unbearable Lightness of Being signals in the first chapter that it is a philosophical novel--it begins with the narrator ruminating on the "myth of eternal return" and the contrasting concepts of lightness and weight. The narrator periodically reinserts himself throughout the novel, making clear that the characters are fictional creations being moved through the "plot" to make a point about the effects of communism or the difficulty of identifying which side of such pairs as lightness and weight, happiness and sorrow is the positive side. He also riffs on such matters as kitsch and what the act of defecation shows about God.

The primary characters in the story are Tomas and Tereza, a married Czech couple living through the Prague Spring, the Soviet invasion of 1968, and the aftermath of these events. Tomas is a skilled surgeon, who meets Tereza by accident (he is filling in for his ill boss at a conference and dines in the restaurant where she is working as a waitress). They marry, but this does not change the fact that Tomas is an unrepentant womanizer. After the Soviet takeover, Tomas is targeted because of an article he wrote in a paper run by intellectuals. Officials put pressure on him to repudiate the article, but he recognizes that his career is ruined whether he stands by his article or repudiates it. He gives up medicine and becomes first a window washer and then a worker on a commune. Tereza becomes a successful photographer, but she too loses her job and returns to waitressing. Terrible dreams haunt Tereza, and her husband's infidelity tortures her. Only her dog Karenin brings her any real joy. Shortly after the dog's death from cancer, Tereza and Tomas die in a truck accident.

Throughout the book, occasional sections are devoted to the artist Sabina, one of Tomas's many mistresses, and a lover she takes after emigrating to Geneva, Franz. When she breaks up with Franz, he quickly finds a new woman (one of his university students), but he holds Sabina in almost religiously high regard--he judges his actions by how she might evaluate them. When he joins a protest in Southeast Asia, he is accidentally killed, ending an essentially meaningless life in a meaningless way. After moving to the United States, Sabina dies, too, but I don't even remember how.

Of course, all characters in novels are fictive, but when the author acknowledges that they are merely stick figures designed to make his point or provide a backdrop for his musings, my interest in them diminishes. Yes, Kundera is making points about communism, about love, about reality--whatever. I'd rather read an essay explicating those points than this novel (acknowledging that  perhaps I am just hopelessly shallow).

Favorite passage--None really

Monday, November 5, 2012

Accelerated, by Bronwen Hruska

As Accelerated opens, Sean Benning is suffering through a parent social for the exclusive Manhattan private school his eight-year-old son Toby attends (Toby's tuition is paid by his in-laws). Sean's wife left him four months ago and has barely been heard from since; as a newly single parent, he is picking up numerous tasks related to The Bradley School that his wife previously fulfilled. And he's not enjoying it . . . despite the blow-job he receives in the bathroom at the social. The depiction of the school milieu makes the reader believe Accelerated is a satire of life among the New York elite.

But soon, author Hruska makes a sharp turn toward the serious. The school is pressuring Sean to put Toby on ADD medication--and Sean eventually capitulates. Then Toby collapses in gym class and Sean sets out on a mission--aided by Toby's attractive new teacher with whom Sean conveniently starts a romance--to prove that the school is endangering students by using a variety of nefarious tactics to force their parents to medicate their children. A meeting with a concerned psychiatrist provides the vehicle for a long explanation of the history of ADD/ADHD drugs and their dangers. Powerful alums of Bradley make life difficult for Sean, but he and his new love eventually triumph.

Hruska is well-intentioned, but the book didn't work for me once it turned serious--everything about the Bradley plot is rather obvious, and Sean's sexual exploits and mad runs around Manhattan (he seems to take off running whenever he gets upset or worried) are tedious.  Readers who are vitally interested in the subject of ADD/ADHD drugs may appreciate Accelerated, but I did not.

Favorite passage: None

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Broken Harbor, by Tana French

In her fourth mystery, Tara French once again picks up a secondary character from her previous book and makes him the protagonist. In this case, it is Scorcher Kennedy, the homicide detective who tormented Frank Mackey in Faithful Place. Kennedy is the lead detective on a horrific case--father Patrick Spain and children Emma and Jack have been killed, mother Jenny severely injured--that just happens to have taken place in a new development (abandoned when half-built) constructed at the beach where his family spent their vacations when he was growing up. And, oh, yes, where his mom committed suicide when he was 15. Kennedy and the rookie partner he is mentoring disagree about the most likely suspect, and their disagreement ends up producing some major screw-ups in their handling of the case. Also weaving her way in and out of the narrative is Kennedy's mentally ill sister Dina.

Obviously, Kennedy has the required number of family secrets for a French character--not to mention the necessary dark side and difficulty sustaining relationships. Perhaps equally obviously, I've about had it with Tana French. I found the Spain family crisis that  provides the backdrop for the crime ridiculous (almost as ridiculous as the premise of The Likeness) and am growing weary of the tortured cop characters. While I have admired French's way with words (particularly in In the Woods),  I got through Broken Harbor with no pages marked--and there are a lot of pages, 450 to be exact.  Frankly, nothing about the mystery nor the psychological aspects of the story merits that many pages.

Not recommended.

Favorite passage (I made myself find something near the end):
. . . cause and effect isn't a luxury. Take it away and we're left paralyzed, clinging to some tiny raft lurching wild and random on endless black sea. If my mother could go into the water just because, then so could theirs, any night, any minute; so could they. When we can't see a pattern, we fit pieces together until one takes shape, because we have to.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton

Not long after we first meet House of Mirth's protagonist, the beautiful 29-year-old  Lily Bart, we recognize that Lily has a penchant for making the wrong decision. While Lily has stellar connections in New York society, she has few financial resources--she needs to marry for money (the book is set in the early years of the 20th century). Several times, she has been close to achieving an engagement that will allow her to live in the manner to which she is accustomed (and although she expresses some qualms about the lifestyle, she disdains unmarried women who have had to make lives for themselves, working and living in small apartments or rooming houses). However, every time she is about to grab the monied husband, she cannot make herself do it; instead, she does something to sabotage the arrangement.

Lily fancies herself in love with Lawrence Selden, a young man in a similar situation to Lily's own: he needs to marry a wealthy woman. At some point in the story, each believes their relationship just might work--but they never hold that belief concurrently. Instead, Lawrence watches as Lily's situation worsens, in part due to her own bad decisions, in part because she earns the wrath of some influential women in her set. As the end of the book approaches, her downward spiral accelerates--slanderous rumors circulated by her "frenemies"  cause her aunt to disinherit her; in an effort to pay back money she accepted from a friend's husband (she convinced herself he was investing for her rather than giving her money he saw as paying for her favor), she takes several jobs, none of which work out well. Living in a boarding house far beneath her notion of her rightful place in society, Lily is unable to eat or sleep. She dies from an accidental overdose of a sleeping medication.

Somehow--despite having ended up with 21 English hours as an undergraduate--I missed reading many of the classics in my formative years. Often, when I decide to improve myself by reading from the canon, I am disappointed (sometimes in the book, sometimes in my own shallowness). House of Mirth does not, however, disappoint.  Wharton's depiction of wealthy New Yorkers at the turn of the previous century is keenly observed (she was a wealthy New Yorker herself), as are the effects of living in that milieu on people of various ranks and personalities. Lily is a prisoner of her upbringing--unable to break out of it, but equally unable to force herself to do what is necessary to remain part of it. She is as judgmental and shallow as the friends who betray her; was her fate not so tragic, we might feel little more sympathy for her than we do for the despicable Bertha Dorset, Lily's chief tormentor. Yet we can imagine a different life for Lily--a life she herself cannot truly imagine. Biases of the time are revealed in Wharton's portrayal of Simon Rosedale, a Jewish businessman who is trying to break into high society. While some reviewers believe this bias detracts from Wharton's work, I found it lent it even greater authenticity.

I listened to the audio version of the book, beautifully read by Wanda McCaddon (she also read The Secret Scripture but used such different accents, I didn't even recognize her voice). In fact, I think listening to the book may have helped me to appreciate Wharton's writing in a way I might not have had I read the book.

Definitely recommended!

Favorite passages:
Mrs. Penniston always sat on a chair, not in it.

He was like a traveler so grateful for rescue from a dangerous accident that at first he was hardly conscious of his bruises.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

Bee Branch is an eighth-grader, a successful student who is on track to go to boarding school (Choate) for high school.  Bernadette Fox, her mother, was an architect who won a MacArthur genius grant after designing just two buildings in LA some 20 years ago; she has not worked for years, hates Seattle, has a mild case of agoraphobia, and goes on rants about a variety of irritants. Elgin Branch, Bee's laid-back father, is a Microsoft team leader who gave the fourth-most-watched TED talk of all time. The family lives in a crumbling house--actually an abandoned school for wayward girls--that is symbolic of the mess their family is in.

Bee decides to take her parents up on a "you can have anything you want for graduation if you have a perfect record in elementary school" promise and ask for a family trip to Antarctica. Bernadette and Elgin agree and schedule the trip--but Bernadette is actually in something of a panic at the thought of enforced socializing with others on the boat and the nausea-inducing Drake Passage. She hires a personal assistant in India to handle all of her errands, including massive ordering of supplies for the trip. Meanwhile, ongoing tiffs with her neighbor lead to a series of events that make Bernadette look like she is totally losing it. When Elgin schedules an intervention, Bernadette disappears.

The book is structured as Bee's attempt to find out what happened to her mother (and she does unravel the mystery in an ending I found rather contrived). It includes Bee's narration, as well as many documents--emails, newspaper articles, memos, Christmas letters, press releases, and more. I liked the structure and the humorous commentary on the way we live our lives in the 21st century was on point. The farcical aspects of the book grew wearying, however (I don't last long with movies that are farces either)--some good editing might have produced a tighter, funnier book. Still, the book was a fun read.

Favorite passage:
The sky in Seattle is so low, it felt like God had lowered a silk parachute over us. Every feeling I ever knew was up in that sky. Twinkling joyous sunlight; airy, giggling cloud wisps; blinding columns of sun. Orbs of gold, pink, flesh, utterly cheesy in their luminosity. Gigantic puffy clouds, welcoming, forgiving, repeating infinitely across the horizon as if between mirrors; and slices of rain, pounding wet misery in the distance now, but soon on us, and in another part of the sky, a black stain, rainless.

Of note:
Maria Semple is friendly with Carol Cassella, the author of this year's One Book, One Broomfield choice. She uses Cassella's doctor persona in the novel and in the acknowledgments thanks Cassella's daughters for providing models for the character of Bee.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

This Bright River, by Patrick Somerville

Ben Hanson and Lauren Sheehan are thirty-somethings who have retreated to their small hometown in Wisconsin. Both have been betrayed--Ben by his girlfriend and business partner, Lauren by her husband. Ben was also an addict, who wasted a substantial trust fund and spent time in prison. His wealthy father talks him into returning to St. Helens to fix up his late uncle's house for sale (the parents moved to the Chicago burbs after Ben and his sister Haley were grown up). While cleaning up the basement of that home, he comes across some papers that belonged to his cousin Wayne, who died mysteriously at a cabin on Michigan's Upper Peninsula some 18 years ago. He begins to look into his cousin's death--and to become involved with Lauren.

Lauren was a medical resident who spent time in Chad working in a refugee camp. After seeing an mass killing at the camp, she and another doctor leave Chad for Switzerland. Despite some misgivings about him, Lauren marries him. A year later, she flees her husband, suffers a breakdown, and returns to St. Helens, where she works at a coffee shop and interns at a veterinarian's office. Ben is the first person to whom she feels any connection.

Enter her husband. First Ben and Lauren run into him--perhaps coincidentally--in Madison. Then he follows them to the cabin on the UP, where Ben is supposed to be disposing of his uncle's ashes. A violent confrontation occurs. Meanwhile, Ben also unravels the mystery of Wayne's death, which also results in the uncovering of several family secrets.

The review of This Bright River that appeared in The New York Times described the book as treading the "middle ground between the pot-boiling, page-turning mystery and the novel of Big Ideas." For me, the book tread that ground for awhile, but the ending pushed it over the pot-boiling ledge. In addition, the way in which Somerville handled his shifting narrators was confusing (and I generally like books with multiple narrators)--at one point he even inserts parenthetically "(This is Lauren,) What? Is this supposed to suggest to us that Lauren and Ben are co-authoring a book? There's no other clues to such a conceit, so I have to conclude this is just major awkwardness!

Favorite passage:
I suppose I had come to believe the opposite of what moving on implied: there is no actual flight from history, and trying to eliminate it does nothing but increase the speed at which it chases you. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

While author David Mitchell pays homage to numerous other works (e.g., Ulysses and The Bridge of San Luis Rey),  Cloud Atlas is a novel unlike any other I have read. It tells six stories, all in different voices, set in different places and time periods, and presented in different "genres"--Mitchell flexes his writerly muscles and does it well. The first five stories are interrupted in the middle; after the sixth story, the ends of the first five stories are presented. If this makes no sense, here is how one reviewer represented the structure: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.

The first story is written as the diary of an American notary, Adam Ewing, who has been sent to New Zealand to find the heir of a client. On the sea voyage home, he falls desperately ill. The second epistolary story, set in Europe after World War I, features the amoral Robert Frobisher. Disowned by his British family and pursued by debt-collectors, he has found work as the assistant to a well-known (and syphilitic) composer. He steals from his employer and sleeps for his wife, all of which he believes is justified by the work he is composing--the Cloud Atlas Sextet, featuring overlapping solos by six instruments. He also finds an interesting book in the library--the diary of Adam Ewing.

The third story is a mystery set in the 1970s. Reporter Luisa Rey is stuck on an elevator with Rufus Sixsmith (the former lover to whom Frobisher's letters were addressed), a physicist who shares frightening results of a study on the safety of two nuclear plants on an island off the coast of California. When Sixsmith is murdered, Rey comes into possession of the letters Frobisher wrote him. The fourth story features Timothy Cavendish, a British publisher (of the vanity sort) in the present; fleeing from "goons" who believe their jailed brother has been cheated of royalties, Cavendish ends up trapped in a nursing home. He receives a submission that is the story of Luisa Rey.

The fifth story, and my favorite, is set in the future in Korea. Sonmi 451 is being questioned by an archivist regarding how she, a fabricant genomed to work in a fast food emporium, ascended to sentience. In this corporatic future, brand names have become the generic terms for most items (starbuck for coffee, ford for car, nikes for shoes). Sonmi's favorite disney (movie) is the story of Timothy Cavendish.

The sixth story is told as an oral history from father to sons; it is the tale of Zachry, a goatherd on the Hawaiian islands even farther in the future. Civilization has collapsed, and Zachry's family lives hard-scrabble existence facing murder or enslavement by the neighboring Konas. Zachry's family takes in a Prescient--one of a group of educated survivors. Zachry comes to believe that the Prescient is Sonmi, whom he worships (how Sonmi became a deity is unclear).

The world of each story is violent, if not brutal. And much of the violence occurs across groups--one tribe or race enslaves and abuses another, countries lurch toward war, people create fabricants to be their slaves, and on and on.  Human nature and the direction of civilization are among the themes Mitchell explores.

The theme that resonates with me is the nature of time and reality. Are the stories simply nested fictions? Are they "an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments, each 'shell' (the present) encased inside a nest of 'shells' (previous presents) I call the actual past but which we perceive as the virtual past. The doll of 'now' likewise encases a nest of presents yet to be, which I call the actual future but which we perceive as the virtual future"? Are the characters linked in some supernatural or genetic way (one character in each story has the same birthmark and Mitchell hints that the birthmarks represent a significant connection but never explains what that connection is)?

I'm sure Cloud Atlas would yield more if I read it again. However, even though I enjoyed the book, I don't feel drawn to reread it--at least not in the near future.

Favorite passages:
Snow is bruised lilac in half-lite: such pure solace. . . . Perhaps those deprived of beauty perceive it most instinctively.

. . . and there, in the background, the brite spring sky's sediment had sunk to a dark band of blue. Ah, it mesmerized me . . . like the snow had done. All the woe of the words "I am" seemed dissolved there, painlessly, peacefully. Hae-Joo announced, "The ocean."

The present presses the virtual past into its own service, to lend credence to its mythologies + legitimacy to the imposition of will. Power seeks + is the right to "landscape" the virtual past. (He who pays the historian calls the tune.)

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Auto-correction Blooper

I am in the early stages of one of my patented mystery binges. In one of them, Stephen White's Line of Fire, I saw an auto-correction that made me laugh out loud. White referenced an eastern Colorado town named Limon, to which auto-correction (or a very, very bad copy-editor) had added an accent mark on the "o."  Thus, the plains town named for a railroad man had been converted to a Spanish town named for the lemon. Don't humans proofread books anymore?

BTW, White's series continues to get more bizarre and Alan Gregory's professional and personal ethics more questionable with every title. Luckily, he plans only one more title in the series. The other book I've read so far in this binge is Kathy Reichs' Bones Are Forever, in which she educates the reader on gold and diamond mining in Canada. Not great, but not terrible.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Kitchen Diaries, by Nigel Slater

Subtitled A Year in the Kitchen with Nigel Slater, Kitchen Diaries is a record of Slater's shopping, cooking, and eating over the course of a year. In the book's introduction, he says "Learning to eat with the ebb and flow of the seasons is the single thing that has made my eating more enjoyable." Thus, his shopping focuses on farmers' markets and specialty stores that carry seasonal foods. Along with providing complete recipes for some dishes and rather vague directions for preparing others, Slater ruminates on whatever season is at hand, as well as the way he thinks about food, eating, and feeding others.

I had wanted to check out this book since it was published in 2006--I just found the premise intriguing--but it was rather expensive and I couldn't find it in the library. I finally bought a used copy last fall and began reading at September, reading each month's chapter during that month. Some months I was charmed by Slater, other months he got on my last nerve, whether because of his writing or my own mood, I don't know. I didn't have a lot of luck with the recipes I tried--the dishes that were more like suggestions actually turned out better for me. I'm glad I didn't pay full price for the book--but I'm glad I got it.

Favorite passages:
Some nights it just has to be pasta. Not out of sloth, but because tender yet substantial ribbons of starch will hit the spot like nothing else. This is one of those nights. A fine autumn day has turned to a chill evening, where the dry leaves are being blown against the windows, whirling and crackling in sudden gusts.

Few sights lift the spirits like a crate of lemons with their glossy leaves intact. They keep well, so I buy them by the dozen. I snap their stems and sniff the cut ends as I pile them into a bowl. They carry with them the faintest ghost of their white blossom. Lemons are as much a part of this kitchen as pepper and salt, but right now their spring-like freshness is more welcome than ever.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Secret Scripture, by Sebastian Barry

Roseanne McNulty is an ancient woman--perhaps 100 years old--who has lived for more than half of her life in Irish mental hospitals, first in her hometown of Sligo and then in the Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital. She has begun to write her life story, which she hides under a loose floorboard in her room. And it is a life of terrible tragedy, full of events that could indeed drive a person mad--and yet it is clear from her "testimony" that Roseanne is not insane. As Roseanne recounts her story, horrendous experience follows horrendous experience--as just one example, she witnesses an orphanage burn down and scores of children die as the result of a mistake by her father in his role as the town's rat-catcher. The Irish civil war and the oppression of women within the Catholic Church (and Irish culture, nearly the same thing at that time) feature prominently in Roseanne's early life. Throughout Roseanne's testimony, Barry builds a sense of dread--clearly, the events that led to Roseanne's institutionalization  involved unbearable pain and betrayal, and we know we will eventually learn what those events were. As the dread grows, however, so does the reader's respect and affection for Roseanne.

Meanwhile, Dr. Grene, who has worked at Roscommon for some 30 years, is attempting to evaluate Roseanne, both because the hospital is about to be torn down and every patient must be relocated and because current policy requires that those who have been institutionalized be considered for reentry into the community.  Dr. Grene is unable to get much information from Roseanne, but he conducts research back in Sligo to try to learn more of her history. He finds her company enjoyable, especially as he is grieving the death of his wife, who was apparently unhinged by a one-night stand Dr. Grene indulged in at a conference some years earlier.

The story alternates between Roseanne's testimony and the notes that Dr. Grene writes in his daybook. Roseanne's version of her story and the one that Dr. Grene uncovers vary on numerous critical dimensions, putting the reader in the position of knowing something that the two characters don't know while still not knowing whether either version is accurate. Near the end, there is a truly startling development--one that I found almost unbelievable--I had to listen to the passage where the surprise is revealed three times to make sure I understood. While I thought this development was a little "hokey," it did not interfere with my overall enjoyment of the book.

The Secret Scripture is the story of ruined people, ruined institutions, and a ruined country, told with what I think of as a sad Irish eloquence.  Yet . . . the story still somehow manages to be about the resilience of the human spirit. Definitely recommended.

Favorite passage:
It is a scandal in the halls of myself.
(There is much to enjoy in the writing but I was listening to the book and did not do a good job of nothing important passages.)

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Awakening, by Kate Chopin

When The Awakening was published in 1899, it was condemned and occasionally banned because of its focus on its protagonist's sexual awakening and subsequent claiming of independence. Edna Pontellier is a young married mother of two when the book opens. She and her children are summering on the Gulf Coast, while her husband comes out from New Orleans for weekend visits. Among the crowd at the beach is Robert LeBrun, whose family owns the resort where the Pontelliers are staying. Edna and Robert form a bond through long days spent talking, walking, and swimming (Edna has household help to care for the children); their relationship is one of the stimulants to Edna's sexual awakening, but so are learning to swim, the sultry Louisiana weather, and the music that another guest at the resort plays some evenings.

When the summer is over, Robert, constrained by convention from taking his love for a married woman beyond a close friendship, announces he is moving to Mexico to pursue business opportunities.  Edna is devastated, but nonetheless begins the process of changing her life back in New Orleans. She cuts off most of her social contacts, simply not being there for her usual "Tuesdays at home" when estimable ladies come to call. She begins working on her painting, heretofore just a pastime, and makes some questionable connections, most notably with the womanizer Alcee Arobin. When her husband Leonce goes on an extended business trip to New York and her children are sent to stay with her mother-in-law, Edna asserts her independence even further, going so far as to rent a separate house for herself (her husband arranges for remodeling at their family home to cover up her scandalous behavior).

Then Robert returns from Mexico and admits that he loves her but must leave forever because their love violates society's conventions. Edna is devastated; she returns to the resort where the two fell in love and walks into the Gulf of Mexico to die (an ending that is foreshadowed in several earlier scenes in which the water seems to call to Edna).

Chopin evokes the Southern environment, both physical and psychological, beautifully; while the physical environment helps to unlock Edna's sexuality and awareness of herself, the psychological environment is stultifying. Regarded as one of the first feminist novels, The Awakening is very much a part of its late 19th-century time--Edna does, after all, still kill herself over a man. And yet Edna's suicide is also a final statement of her independence (cf. Austen's "independent" heroines of  earlier in the century or even Louisa May Alcott's Jo, who found their happiness in marriage). Jane Smiley suggests reading Chopin in conjunction with Edith Wharton and Henry James (neither of whom I have read much of), and I am thinking of following her advice.

Favorite passages:

It is really too hot to think, especially to think about thinking.

Woman, my dear friend, is a very peculiar and delicate organism--a sensitive and highly organized woman, such as I know Mrs. Pontellier to be, is especially peculiar. It would require an inspired psychologist to deal successfully with them. And when ordinary fellows like you and me attempt to cope with their idiosyncrasies the result is bungling.  [This is the opinion of a doctor Mr. Pontellier called in to ascertain why his wife was behaving so oddly.]

When the weather was dark and cloudy Edna could not work. She needed the sun to mellow and temper her mood to the sticking point.

Friday, August 31, 2012

And When She Was Good, by Laura Lippmann

And When She Was Good is the story of Heloise (nee Helen) Lewis, a madame in suburban Baltimore. When another madame in the area is arrested and then commits suicide (or is she murdered?), Heloise begins to feel threatened. She is concerned that she might be exposed and arrested, her life ruined. She is also worried about her physical safety and that of her son Scott, the child of her former pimp Val, who does not know Scott exists; Val is in prison for murder, but when Heloise learns that the dead madame was another of Val's former "girls," she wonders if he is killing everyone who saw him commit the crime (not only did she see it, she's the one who turned him in to the police).

The book is a psychological thriller that takes place in Heloise's head, as she reflects on her childhood with an abusive father and the events that led her into a life of prostitution while trying to figure out how to save herself from harm, both physical and reputational. Unfortunately, the book simply isn't very suspenseful; nor is Heloise a sympathetic character--quite the opposite. She blames her parents, Val, and others for her problems, taking no responsibility for the bad decisions she has made. Does she get killed or ruined? In the end, I really didn't care.

While I have been a fan of Laura Lippmann, her two most recent books have not been up to par. Bring back Tess Monaghan!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, by Anna Quindlen

Although it is subtitled A Memoir, I would describe Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake as a collection of essays in which author Anna Quindlen reflects on aging and what it means for women when their roles in family life and the professional world are both changing--all while both ourselves and our parents are living much longer. Certainly Quindlen's reflections are shaped by her own life experiences--as the mother of three, the daughter of a woman who died young, a woman in the newsroom when newsrooms were male bastions equipped with typewriters and copy boys--so in that sense the essays do have a "memoiristic" quality, if that's a word.

Among the topics that Quindlen writes about are:

  • How people feel about "Stuff" and the accumulation of stuff as they age (stuff is less important than it used to be). 
  • Girlfriends (they're critical).
  • Wondering about the person you might have been had you made different decisions along the way (Quindlen likely would have been a bad mother if she hadn't stopped drinking).
  • Why being alone is better when you're older ("Solitude is an acceptable form of selfishness"). 
  • Coming to terms with changes in your looks and your health as you age (not so bad--but maybe it will get worse later). 
  • Accepting that your children are adults (hard--but worthwhile when you see what good people they've become).
In the Introduction to the book, Quindlen notes that one of the great things about writing her column "Life in the 30s" was that women often wrote to her saying they they felt better knowing they were not alone. That is perhaps both a strength and weakness of Quindlen's work as an essayist. Women readers do see themselves in her work--we understand what it's like to realize our children are now grown-ups, to deal with the death of a parent or friends. But perhaps if she were less like us she might challenge us more. Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake is an enjoyable read, but it didn't push me to think harder about what aging means. 

Favorite passages:
That's the kind of compliment you don't even recognize as a compliment after a couple of decades together unless you take the time to hold it up to the light and let the sun shine through it.

Piety has always found its most comfortable home in America amid newer immigrants, who welcome the shape devotion gives to an uncertain existence and the solace the spiritual provides in times of dislocation and want. But the more people are educated, the more they are skeptical; the more they are prosperous, the less likely they are to slavishly adhere to the faith of their fathers. 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Gold, by Chris Cleave

Zoe, Kate, and Jack are top-flight short-track bicyclists living and training in Manchester, England; Tom is their coach, a former cyclist who missed an Olympic gold medal by a fraction of a second. Zoe is obsessed with winning to the extent that she has little else in her life; we are meant to believe that all of this relates back to her brother's death in childhood (although it seems she was already obsessive then). She even uses sex as a tactic for getting the best of Kate, her friend and rival. Kate is the antithesis of Zoe, giving up her chances in both the Athens and Beijing games to care for her daughter Sophie--a rather fragile newborn at the time of the Athens games, freshly diagnosed with leukemia in Beijing. Jack and Kate are married, but Jack has also had a dalliance with Zoe.

Most of the action in the book takes place while the three adults are training for the London games and Sophie is fighting a recurrence of her leukemia, imagining herself as Luke Skywalker and her bad blood cells as enemird to be vanquished by The Force. She is hiding just how badly she is reacting to the chemotherapy from her parents because she knows her sickness could interfere with their training (in one scene she vomits into the Millennium Falcon and then must figure out how to sneak the spaceship into the bathroom to empty and clean it). Meanwhile, the Olympic committee changes the rules for the short-track events, meaning that only one of the women--Zoe or Kate--can compete in London.

Numerous conflicts and crises ensue, but nothing obscures the fact that Gold is a rather mundane story, with few surprises or insights. For me this was particularly disappointing because I liked Cleave's previous two novels (especially Little Bee) so much. Relocating his story from the nexus between individual lives and significant international concerns--terrorism, immigration, brutal regimes in Africa--to the world of sport reduced its effectiveness substantially. And I say this as a sports fan with some family experience of childhood leukemia. Very disappointing!

Favorite passages:
One moment of pain was never unbearable unless you allowed it to have some kind of a relationship with the moments on either side of it. Atoms of time could be trained to operate quite effectively in strictly partitioned cubicles on the open-plan floor of the day.

Zoe left him lying there, gathering her things quietly and tiptoeing across the floor to allow them both the dignity of the notion that, were it not for the fact that he was sleeping, one of them would have spoken words of farewell that would have been weightless and wise and made the whole terrible thing all right. It was important to leave space for the idea that such words were available to be spoken, requiring only to be plucked from the low-hanging branches of the dawn.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Faith, by Jennifer Haigh

At the height of the Boston Archdiocese's sexual abuse scandal, Father Arthur Breen is accused of molesting a young boy, the grandson of his housekeeper. Art's family responds in varied ways. His mother, once a somewhat wild girl but now settled into lace-curtain Catholicism, knows he was wrongly accused. (His stepfather is suffering from dementia and has no idea what is happening.) His half-sister Sheila McGann, who has moved to Philadelphia to escape from the family's web,  initially trusts Art and rushes back to Boston to help him. When he refuses to talk about his relationship with the boy and the boy's mother, but does share with her his own story of abuse by a priest, she begins to have doubts. Meanwhile, her brother Mike, the father of three young boys, afraid Art might be guilty, decides to investigate for himself. His WASP-y wife Abby is making his life miserable--never fond of Mike's family, she wants nothing more to do with them or the Catholic Church. To avoid spoilers that would affect your engagement with what is actually quite a suspenseful story, I won't say more about the plot.

Faith is told from Sheila's perspective (looking back from some point in the future when the matter has been resolved), but the story is equally hers, Art's, and Mike's. And each of their stories is painful as they struggle with the shortcomings of the institutions they have relied on (church and family) and their own limitations. The extent to which they have faith--in themselves, their loved ones, and in religion--and their inability to talk openly about past and present family dynamics shape their responses to Art's situation and the ways in which they interact with other characters.

Faith is a moving story with strong characterizations. Near the end of the book, Haigh relies a bit too much on a device that reveals information that otherwise would have been unknown to Sheila. But this weakness does not  undercut the novel's effective exploration of a family and a church in crisis. The audio version of the book is skilfully read by Therese Plummer.

Favorite passages:
I was newly divorced and wore the scars like jewelry.

Faith is a decision. In its most basic form, it's a choice.

It's true more often than we realize: each new love is built from the wreckage of those of the loves that came before. . . . We love those who fit the peculiar voids within us, our hollow wounds. We love to fill the spaces the old loves left behind.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Healer, by Carol Cassella

Healer is the choice for the One Book, One Broomfield program this year. Written by Carol Cassella, who is an anesthesiologist as well as an author, Healer is Claire Boehning's story. Claire has a medical degree, but she never completed her residency, took her boards, or actually practiced because a difficult pregnancy forced her out of her residency and the thought of a woman who died as a result of Claire's misdiagnosis kept her from returning. And her brilliant husband Addison's work had allowed her to live extremely comfortably without needing to work. The Boehnings had lived in a mansion on Lake Washington in Seattle, purchased with the money they made from selling Addison's revolutionary test for ovarian cancer.

Then, Addison's next project--a chemotherapy drug for colon cancer patients--stalled during the testing process and they lost everything. As the book opens, Claire and their teenage daughter Jory have moved to a rickety vacation property in rural Hallum, Washington, that they had bought years ago but never actually occupied. It's rodent-infested, cold, and not at all what the two are used to. Addison, meanwhile, is trying to raise capital to restart testing on his drug. Given their reduced circumstances, Claire must seek work and eventually finds a job at a clinic that provides care for the poor and uninsured, including many migrant workers.

Healer has many subplots and related themes--a Nicaraguan woman who befriends Jory and Claire is trying to find out what happened to her daughter, Jory is rebelling against her mother and the strictures "poverty" is placing on her, Claire's boss seems to be fading but will not share what his problem is, the wealthy investor who may save Addison's drug may also be involved in shady activities involving testing drugs on unauthorized immigrants. But the central theme is how a woman and a marriage are tested and changed when the easy life obtained through wealth is stripped away and Claire and Addison must confront painful truths.

Although Healer is an enjoyable read, the conflicts in the story were, to my mind, resolved too neatly/easily for the book to have real weight. I also find it a curious choice for One Book, One Broomfield, as it does not seem to be a book that would appeal to many male readers--but perhaps I'm wrong about that. (Sadly, it wouldn't be the first time.)

Favorite passage:
She had consumed her anger by moving forward, pouring so much optimistic fuel into the planning and packing and sorting that any lurking spark of rage blew out as she flew on to the next task. It had taken her months, maybe not until last night, to realize that she couldn't allow her mind to linger. Because then she might discover how much or how little she would ever be able to forgive.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Shout Her Lovely Name, by Natalie Serber

Shout Her Lovely Name is a collection of short stories about mothers and daughters; three are stand-alone stories, while the other eight are slices of the lives of mom Ruby and daughter Nora.

The title (and first) story is the most powerful. Written in the second person (with liberal use of the imperative), it captures the thoughts and feelings of a mother whose daughter is anorexic. Along with concern and fear, the mother feels anger toward her daughter and husband, and yearns for her life to be about her, if only momentarily. From the first sentences--"In the beginning, don't talk to your daughter, because anything you say she will refute. Notice that she no longer eats cheese. Yes, cheese: an entire food category goes missing from her diet"--to the last (see favorite passages), the emotions conveyed seem authentically intense.

The remaining stories don't have the emotional impact of "Shout Her Lovely Name," although the Ruby and Nora stories, which could be a book of their own, are engaging character studies. The first three stories are told from Ruby's perspective. In the first, she is a freshman at the University of Florida (the time seems to be the early 70s), coming home for a visit to her parents. Her mother rarely leaves the house, while her father rarely finds his way there. Before we realize subsequent stories are going to tell us much more about Ruby and her relationships, we know her models have been poor. In the second story, it is summer vacation and Ruby is waiting tables in the Keys, having just found out she is pregnant. In the third, she is living in New York with the father of her baby, Marco, who is trying desperately to get her to place her baby for adoption. When she decides to keep the baby, he brings all her belongings to the hospital in a single suitcase, with $500 and a note saying, "Forgive me."

The last five stories in the Ruby-Nora cycle are told from Nora's perspective, beginning when she is in the primary grades and ending when she is a young adult, struggling to find her way both romantically and professionally. Sadly, Ruby's emotional development seems to have stopped when she made the decision to keep her baby; although she is a high school teacher--and, the story "Take Your Daughter to Work" would suggest, a good one--at home she has a wine cooler in hand and a scheme for meeting guys in mind. With that kind of guidance--and a life that involves frequent moves--it's no wonder that Nora struggles. Yet  Natalie Serber has drawn her so well that we believe she has a moral center that will see her through.

The remaining two stories, unrelated to the others, tell two mothers' stories. One is a young mother, married to her former professor, on a flight to introduce their new baby to her in-laws. The other is a mother of alienated teenagers, adrift in her own life. Both stories are readable but lack the impact of the others in this well-worth-reading collection.

Favorite passage:
Open your arms wide. Your daughter is getting nearer. Know that it is up to her. Say her lovely name. Know that it is up to her. Shout her lovely name.

Monday, August 6, 2012

In Session: Dr. Morgan Snow with . . . by M. J. Rose

In Session is a mini-short story collection that was offered free to Audible subscribers. It features three stories, in which author M.J. Rose imagines how her character, sex therapist Morgan Snow, might interact with three tough-guy heroes created by other authors:  Steve Berry's Cotton Malone, Lee Child's Jack Trainer, and Barry Eisler's John Rain. She got approval from the three authors, who also okayed the stories; Eisler even participated in writing his character's dialogue. In addition, the readers who narrate the other three authors' works in audible form voice their characters in this audiobook.

It's a clever idea, and in an interview at the end of the book, Rose talks about how digital media made such a collection possible--an unusual positive look at the effects of new media on publishing. Since I have not read other books about any of the four characters featured, I probably didn't have a full appreciation of Rose's work in limning the characters and creating situations in which the three male characters would talk about sex with a stranger. Still, I found the stories enjoyable and the characters distinctly drawn. I especially appreciated that Dr. Snow learned from the three macho guys while helping them explore their own psyches.

Favorite passage:
My whole life is a wrong decision. One more one way or the other is a statistical rounding error.

The Giver, by Lois Lowry

Jonas, the protagonist of Lois Lowry's Newbery Medal-winning The Giver, seems to be an average 11-year-old, perhaps slightly more thoughtful than some of his age-mates. He is apprehensive about the upcoming Ceremony of Twelve, in which he and all the other Elevens will receive their Assignments; the Assignments determine the careers they will be trained for and fulfill in the highly structured society in which they live. Jonas's father is a Nurturer, who cares for newchildren before they are named and assigned to families in December of the year in which they are born.  His mother holds a position in the Department of Justice. Assignments can include anything from birthmother to laborer to instructor to rehabilitation worker.

When Jonas hears his Assignment, it is clear he was right to be apprehensive. He will be the community's new Receiver of Memory, an assignment that the Chief Elder announces will cause him indescribable physical pain. Indeed, the last selection of a new Receiver failed and the person selected was "released." As Jonas starts his training with the current Receiver (who says that Jonas can call him The Giver), we begin to realize fully how constrained life is in this community. The Giver first passes on to Jonas the memory of color--other members of the community have no perception of color. Similarly, he introduces Jonas to snow and sunshine, weather phenomena that have been eliminated for a gray sameness in the weather, and to love, a feeling that has also been eliminated. While these memories are pleasant, many others are excruciatingly difficult--memories of starvation, broken limbs, war, and other forms of destruction. Jonas must have these memories, The Giver tells him, so that he will have the wisdom needed to advise the Council of Elders when they consider changes in the elaborate set of rules that govern the community.

The difficulty of his training makes Jonas resentful of his friends who are blithely living "ordinary lives." Even his family cannot understand what he is going through. Providing some comfort is the newchild Gabe, whom his father has been bringing home every night because Gabe is not progressing well and is disturbing the nighttime Nurturers. Jonas is able to soothe Gabe by sharing some brief pleasant memories. Matters come to a head when Jonas learns what "release" actually means--witnessing his father taking part in the release of a twin (only one twin can be welcomed into the community). His concern that Gabe will be released and The Giver's concern for the future of the larger community cause them to formulate a plan.

As a science fiction reader, I'm operating at about a 12-year-old level, so intellectually speaking I am the "young adult" target audience for Lois Lowry's thought-provoking work. As a civic educator, I think The Giver is a powerful teaching tool for examining the conflicts among values that society's must face: rule of law and order/security versus liberty and justice, for example. I am looking forward to seeing the stage version of The Giver when the Denver Center presents it this fall (for more information, see:

Favorite passage:
Of course they needed to care. It was the meaning of everything.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice, by Terry Tempest Williams

When Terry Tempest Williams was in her late 20s, her mother died, leaving Terry her journals. A month later, Terry began exploring the journals,only to find that they all--shelf after shelf--were blank. "The blow of her blank journals," says Williams, "became a second death."

Twenty-five years later, when Williams had reached the age at which her mother died, she returned to the mystery of the diaries to create this meditation on women and voice. (I heard her talk at the Tattered Cover last month, and she said that she really didn't think about the journals during the intervening years--but I believe the thought of them must have been marinating somewhere in her subconscious.) In a series of 54 chapters of varying lengths, she deals with wide-ranging topics. The connection with voice is obvious in some--John Cage's silent composition and Robert Rauschenberg's all-white paintings, her efforts to save Utah wilderness,  an encounter with a possibly murderous madman about which she told no one, taking part in civil disobedience at the Nevada Test Site, teaching at a very conservative school, contraception.  For me, other connections were more difficult to make--although, even while confused, I appreciated Williams beautiful writing. For example, in recounting a story of being cut by a peregrine falcon's wing, Williams says "I am marked, scarred, my skin engraved by a feather. Death's cry comes through a ventriloquist, whose lips you never see move until they are howling with laughter." What does she mean? I don't know, yet I savor  how she says. And, looking for the chapters that didn't seem to fit as I was reading, I now can't find them--somehow everything has fallen into place in a powerful exploration of women's voices.

Throughout the chapters, Williams intersperses statements about the journals:

My Mother's Journals are a gesture and a vow.

My Mother's Journals are a "harmony of silence." 

My Mother's Journals are an act of defiance.

My Mother's Journals are an act of modesty.

By the end of the book, she concludes that the mystery of the journals is a gift her mother has given her--they are a "paradox, journals without words that create a narrative of the imagination."

Favorite passages: 
We all have our secrets. I hold mine. To withhold words is power. But to share our words with others, openly and honestly, is also power.

Conversation is the vehicle for change. We test our ideas. We hear our own voice in concert with another. And inside those pauses of listening, we approach new territories of thought. A good argument, call it a discussion, frees us.

My task as a teacher was to honor the integrity of fact while at the smae time igniting the students' imagination. To create an atmosphere where each child felt free to explore their own questions without fear of being reprimanded was my greatest pleasure.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Calling Invisible Women, by Jeanne Ray

Clover Hobart is a middle-aged, underemployed journalist with a busy and distracted pediatrician husband, a    daughter who is a cheerleader at Ohio State, and a son who is two years out of college, unemployed, and depressed. When she suddenly becomes invisible, her family does not notice; of her acquaintances, only her friend and neighbor Glinda immediately sees what has happened. Clover experiences an array of emotions from fear to anger to sadness. But when she sees a notice inviting invisible women to a meeting, she finds the knowledge that others are similarly afflicted bracing and the friendship of the other invisible women invaluable. Indeed, she finds herself suddenly more courageous than ever before--thwarting crimes and scaring high school students into behaving well. She spends a day at her husband's office, for the first time realizing the pressures he faced in his work and the ways in which he coped with those problems. Through the invisible women, she also learns that the invisibility is due to a drug interaction involving several drugs commonly prescribed to menopausal women. She and her friends decide to take on the pharmaceutical company that makes the popular medications. 

I have enjoyed Jeanne Ray's previous books--they're not as deep or serious as the literary works that her daughter Ann Patchett writes, but the characters and their relationships are realistically multidimensional and the plots entertaining. As an author, Ray evinces humor and warmth. Calling Invisible Women has both, but it is a more political than her earlier works, and the theme involving the drug company is not as well developed as the aspects of the story that deal with Clover's family and her own struggle to be visible, both physically and metaphorically. The ending is also anticlimactic--I was listening to the Audible version, and was shocked when I looked down and saw there were only five minutes left and things were just heating up. Essentially, those five minutes were: "This, this, and this happened; the end."

If you're looking for a light read and haven't read Jeanne Ray's other books, I'd recommend starting with one of them--but Calling Invisible Women is still an enjoyable beach read.

Favorite passage:
Year after month and week after day, we have come back to each other. We would know each other's bodies blind. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Menage, by Alix Kates Shulman

Mack, a real estate developer who has managed to profit from the collapse of the housing market, is attending the L.A. funeral of a woman he had been wooing when he meets Zoltan Barbu, an exile from an unnamed Eastern European country. Zoltan, the dead woman's long-time lover (their breakup may have prompted her suicide), was once a rising literary star--Susan Sontag wrote a blurb for his most highly regarded satiric work--who hasn't published anything in years. Instantly intrigued by the down-on-his-luck but worldly writer, Mack quickly invites Zoltan to live with his family in their eco-friendly New Jersey mansion. Mack knows his wife Heather, a part-time journalist with aspirations to write fiction, will find in Zoltan the intellectual companionship Mack cannot give her, especially when he is jetting around the country putting together deals and hitting on women. At the same time, Zoltan's presence in their home will provide Mack with the social/cultural cachet not usually granted real estate moguls. Indeed, Zoltan promises to teach Mack and Heather "how to live" in exchange for room and board.

Zoltan accepts Mack's invitation and, at first, the three spend long nights in soulful conversation. But it is not long before the relationship between Heather and Zoltan goes badly awry.  In Shulman's hands, the three characters, the New York publishing scene, and the conspicuous consumption of the wealthy "environmentally conscious" all take a satiric beating, revealed as self-centered jerks with no insight into themselves or others. 

Remembering Shulman for her early feminist writings, including the novel Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, I was surprised that Heather was depicted as being as despicable as her husband and would-be lover. Judging by this book, Shulman has become more of a misanthrope than a feminist (an evolution I unfortunately understand). As a reader with little connection to the social and economic worlds that Mack, Heather, and Zoltan populate, I found the satire more tedious than funny or illuminating. 

Favorite passage:
For her, reading was more than a pastime, like watching a movie; it was an elevating, intimate act. She read slowly, carefully, pencil in hand, marking the margins in a private code, lingering over certain passages, copying into a special notebook those words or phrases that touched her or that she thought she might like to use in her own writing, occasionally posting over her desk brief passages that spoke directly to her. Such physical acts of communion made the authors' words seem almost her own.

 (Okay, this is funny and a good poke at all of us readers who "claim" the words of the authors we read.)

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Amy Dunne disappears from her Carthage, Missouri, home on her fifth anniversary. Amy is the namesake of the little girl in a series of Amazing Amy books her psychologist parents have been writing since she was small. Amy, too, majored in psychology and used her degree to write magazine quizzes. However, both she and her journalist husband Nick lost their jobs in Manhattan. They moved to Nick's home town to help care for his aging (divorced) and ill parents. Nick and his twin sister Margo buy a bar with the last of the money in Amy's trust fund.

Not surprisingly, Nick and Amy's marriage is in trouble when she disappears, and this rather quickly leads to his being considered the prime suspect. As layers of secrets are revealed, the story takes many turns that I do not want to reveal for the sake of people planning to read the book.

The first section of the book is told in alternating chapters--Nick's story from the day that his wife goes missing, and Amy's story as told through her diary entries from several years ago to shortly before her disappearance. Later, the diary drops away and the alternating chapters are told from Amy's perspective--but still days or weeks behind the observations in Nick's chapter.

The story is quite creepy and the clever and intricate structure keeps the reader's attention. Unfortunately, both Nick and Amy are unlikable characters, so there is really no one to root for as events draw to a head. While mysteries/thrillers generally involve a variety of unsavory folks, I guess I prefer to have at least one character who is sympathetic. But if you like psychological suspense and don't care whether you can like any of the characters, then this book is for you!

Favorite passages:
I used to see men--friends, coworkers, strangers--giddy over these awful pretender women, and I'd want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who'd like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. 

I remember always being baffled by other children. I would be at a birthday party and watch the other kids giggling and making faces, and I would try to do that too, but I wouldn't understand why. I would sit there with the tight elastic thread of the birthday hat parting the pudge of my underchin, with the grainy frosting of the cake bluing my teeth, and I would try to figure out why it was fun.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Red House, by Mark Haddon

You have to feel some empathy for an author whose reviews seem always to start with a mention of his first (adult) novel because it was a singular accomplishment. Such is the case with Mark Haddon, who to date has had difficulty matching the achievement of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, written in the convincing voice of an autistic boy. The Red House has many more voices--the eight members of an extended British family who are spending a week together on a country holiday--though the eight seem to add up to a not particularly fresh depiction of family dysfunction.

Angela, in the wake of her mother's death, has found that her pain over a stillborn daughter has bubbled up to haunt her 18 years after the event. Her brother Richard, from whom she has been estranged for many years, has volunteered to pay for this holiday in an attempt at reconciliation. Angela brings with her husband Dominick, an underemployed jingle writer who is having an affair; daughter Daisy, who is driving everyone mad with her recent enthusiastic adoption of Christianity; horny teenage son Alex; and eight-year-old Benjy. With Richard are his second wife Louisa and her sullen daughter Melissa. Over the course of their week in the red house, their problems only seem to multiply. And, realistically but unsatisfyingly, nothing is resolved by the time the vacation is over and the book ends.

The narration switches fairly rapidly from character to character; listening to the audiobook was challenging, as it was difficult to discern when the voice was changing. Although the reader (Maxwell Caulfield) changed his voice for the different characters, the differences were quite subtle. In addition, Haddon from time to time inserts descriptive/metaphorical passages: for example: "The witching hour. Deep in the satches of hte night, when the old and the weak and the sick let go and the membrane between this world and the other stretches almost to nothing."   I found these passages confusing because I couldn't tell if they were supposed to be linked to a particular character (they didn't sound like the characters) or were floating observations from an omniscient narrator (and, if so, why). Perhaps this might somehow have been clearer in print. 

The reviews of The Red House have been mixed; I join the ranks of those who found the book disappointing. 

Favorite passage:
Reality. It meant nothing. It was the story that mattered. The story that held you together. The satisfaction of turning those pages, going back to favorite scenes over and over. A book at bedtime. The reassurance of it, saying "this happened, then that happened." Saying, "This is me." But what is her story? Losing the plot. The deep truths hidden in the throw-away phrase. 

Hunger Games Trilogy, by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games Trilogy includes three young adult novels: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and The Mockingjay.  The books have been such a publishing sensation (a la Harry Potter and the Twilight series) that a synopsis is rather redundant. But here's my brief version: Our 16-year-old heroine Katniss Everdeen lives in Panem, the country that exists in what used to be North America. Katniss and her friend Gale hunt and trade on the black market to keep their families fed--a rarity in what are known as the Districts. Panem is ruled from the Capitol, a city of luxury and foolishness; all of the work needed to keep the Capitol going is done in the Districts, where the people toil away with inadequate food and few creature comforts, kept docile by the annual ritual in which two children from each of the Districts must participate in the Hunger Games. Only one combatant can survive the Games; the live telecast of the Games is required viewing throughout Panem.  When her sister Prim is chosen for the Games, Katniss volunteers to go in her place, setting in motion a series of events that will eventually bring down the Capitol. As if three volumes of treachery, violence, and death weren't enough, Collins throws in a love triangle (Katniss, her fellow "tribute" Peeta, and  Gale) to provide extra angst for Katniss (and the foundation for a corny happy ending). 

I don't read much science fiction, fantasy, or dystopian literature (not sure where among those genres The Hunger Games technically falls), but I thought the premise of the series was intriguing. At the same time, I was disturbed by the notion that Collins wrote this series for children (teenagers are, after all, still children).  I was creeped out by the idea of presenting kids with the specter of a society in which children are nothing but pawns for evil adults (okay, despite my sometime-cynicism, I'm essentially naive and over-protective).  And the level of violence, the horrible ways in which people are killed, and the number of killings done by children made me cringe.  

Of course, I thought Lord of the Flies was one of the best books I had ever read when I encountered it as a teenager, and it was about kids doing unspeakable things. But Lord of the Flies didn't, in my opinion, use violence as entertainment, which I feel The Hunger Games does. And make no mistake, the books are entertaining. I just hope my grandchildren don't read them until they are 20 or so!