Sunday, January 29, 2012

Two of the Deadliest, edited by Elizabeth George

Award-winning mystery writer Elizabeth George tasked an impressive roster of female authors--Nancy Pickard, Linda Barnes, Laura Lippmann, Marcia Muller, Carolyn Hart, and Wendy Hornsby, among others--with writing short stories about people motivated by lust and/or greed to nefarious deeds.

The first three two stories are effectively creepy. In "Dark Chocolate," by Nancy Pickard, a woman frosts and eats an entire cake as she waits for her husband to come home; as she eats her way through the cake, the reader becomes aware of the horror within her house. "The Offer," by Patricia Smiley, is the story of a young woman in LA for a job interview; she accepts a limo ride intended for another person with a similar name who is also in town interviewing for a job. She intends to head for her own hotel once they get downtown, but she allows herself to assume the other applicant's at the fancier hotel...with bizarre results. Kristine Kathryn Rusch writes about an electronic stalker in "E-Male." When the stalker discovers that the object of his intrusions is in danger, he must find a way to help her without revealing his own guilt. These are just three of the stories in the collection that really work--they build suspense (or horror), they develop interesting characters, and they do reveal the workings of greed and/or lust, all within just a few pages.

Of course, some stories are less effective. A few have rather silly romantic twists. Others are too obvious or simply not engaging. At the end of the book, George presents stories by five writers who "are either largely unknown or who have not been published before." Unfortunately, I didn't find any of these stories very effective. But they're short--and you can always skip ahead to the next story.

Favorite passage:
. . . Brad really harshed on my mellow. ("Can You Hear Me Now?" by Marcia Talley, who introduced me to this phrase I may just have to work into conversation.)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Story of Beautiful Girl, by Rachel Simon

Rachel Simon (author of Riding the Bus with My Sister) has personal experience with a family member who has an intellectual disability. She brings that knowledge to The Story of Beautiful Girl, along with a sense of horror about the ways in which the disabled were treated in institutional settings little more than 30 years ago.

The book opens on a rainy night in 1968, when an odd couple shows up at the door of retired teacher Martha Zimmer--an African American man who is deaf and a younger white woman who is beautiful but seems unable to speak. Mrs. Zimmer provides dry clothes for the couple, who are obviously in love; as they emerge from the layers of wet clothing, she sees that the young woman is carrying a newborn baby. Within minutes, however, the police and officials from the "Pennsylvania State School for the Incurable and Feebleminded" show up. The man escapes, but the woman is put in a straightjacket and hauled away. As she is dragged from the house, she manages to whisper to Martha Zimmer, "Hide her."

Martha takes the charge from this stranger to heart and immediately makes plans to leave her home with the baby. Drawing on a network of former students with whom she stays in touch, Martha sets out to keep the child, whom she names Julia, from being captured by men from the school. At this point, the story is told on three parallel tracks--Martha and Julia's life on the lam; life at the school, told from the perspective of both the young mother Lynnie and a good-hearted employee named Kate; and the cross-country adventures of the deaf man Homan, who is trying to get back to the school but keeps getting sidetracked.

Homan is bright but cannot communicate except in a sign language that no one else knows. He ended up confined at the School after a period he called "The Running," when he was fleeing from people who killed his brother. After his escape from the school, he has another long spell of running, with many frightening experiences; yet he also meets a number of people who treat him kindly. The same is true for Martha and Julia; while their lives are not totally easy, they are helped by and encounter many lovely people. And through one of her former students, Martha is able to start the process that brings sorely-needed reform to the school. The depiction of life at the school is grim--yet even here, Lynnie was able to fall in love with Homan, whom she thinks of as Buddy; make a good friend in Doreen, the child of a famous playwright and actress (perhaps based on the story of Arthur Miller and his son); and develop her skill as an artist with the help of Kate. Yet she yearns for both Buddy and her child and must still deal with the two sadistic guards who repeatedly intimidate her, the filth of the facility, and the fear of knowing what can happen if you don't go along.

Simon does a good job of helping readers understand the thought processes of two people who cannot communicate with others and don't always understand what is going on around them--and she imbues them with great dignity. She also casts light on a disturbing and too-little-known aspect of our recent history, the treatment of the disabled in state-sponsored institutions. Given that context, the book could be extremely dark, Simon manages to make the story one of redemption and the power of the human spirit. While I was reading the ending, I was thinking to myself, "This is a bit hokey,"--and yet I was moved (in fact, I shed a tear or two on the plane where I was reading the book--kind of an embarrassing moment).

Favorite passages:
Learning to speak again had been a long process made up of many tiny steps, each taking endless afternoons of frustration. Luckily, everyone who mattered to Lynnie had grown used to what Doreen had dubbed "Lynnie-talk" . . . the reactions of others were actually another lesson she'd learned about change. When change happened to an individual, it happened to everyone around her--sometimes in ways she wished for, though sometimes in ways she wished against.

The sky was crying outside, and as she watched the drops come down, she thought: A rainy day can actually be a very important day. And a small hope isn't really small if it makes a lost hope less sad.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Wingshooters, by Nina Revoyr

Michelle LeBeau was born and spent her first eight years in Japan. Then her Japanese mother left her and her American father and they eventually follow her to the United States. Heading off in search of his wife, Michelle's father leaves her with his parents in small-town Deerhorn, Wisconsin, where she is even less accepted than she was in Japan. Despite being aware that her grandfather Charlie shares some of the bigotry of the community, she adores him and loves nothing better than the activities she does with him, whether going to the coffee shop, playing baseball, hunting, or walking in the woods.

Michelle, or Mike as Charlie calls her, struggles to find her place in the insular community of Deerhorn, where children feel free to, at worst, physically attack her and, at best, ignore her. When a black couple (a schoolteacher and nurse) move to Deerhorn, the racist attitudes of many of the townspeople are further revealed. Entangled with the town's reaction to this couple is the revelation that one of Charlie's friends is abusing his son. As Michelle struggles to understand what is happening to the town and her grandfather, the town spirals toward violence.

Nina Revoyr's book has received accolades from Independent Booksellers, among others, but I had issues. The book feels like it is set in the 1950s rather than 1974. As a white Midwestern farm girl (born and raised in northern Illinois) who married an African American man in 1973, I know there was and is racism in small-town America (as in urban America). But for me the events depicted are too extreme for the time and place in which the author has placed them. (And I recognize that my tendency to defend the Midwest from the literati may be based on misapprehensions of my own.)

A second problem has to do with the narrative voice. It's difficult for an adult to write in the voice of a child. Writing about childhood as recollected by an adult narrator (as Revoyr does) might seem easier--after all, it certainly expands the vocabulary available and allows for insight gained through adult reflection. Yet there are also challenges, chief among them maintaining the authenticity of the child's experience. Revoyr does this best when she's describing Michelle's school experiences or her adventures in the countryside around Deerhorn. She's less successful in other instances. For example, when Michelle describes the child abuser's wife, she says, "She was still a pretty woman, or you could see that she had been, but the years of worry and silence had worn her away, like a house grayed by the buffeting winds." Really? That's what a third-grader thought? Hmmm.

And, on a minor note, I don't understand the title of the book. Wingshooters refers to bird hunters. We learn at some point in the book that Charlie had given up hunting for birds, so I'm sure the title has some symbolic meaning. But I don't get it!

Favorite passage: None

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Sister, by Rosamund Lupton

At last, an excellent mystery--well-written, interestingly structured, scary, and yet moving.

The book is written as a letter to younger, flightier, sometimes annoying sister Tess (who we quickly learn is dead), from older, more settled sister Bee. Bee is recounting what happened from the time she learned that her sister was missing and boarded a flight from New York to London through the unraveling of the mystery of Tess's death. The police rule Tess a suicide, but Bee is sure that she would not have killed herself even though she was grieving the death of her newborn son. As girls, Bee and Tess lived through their brother's death from cystic fibrosis, and Bee knows that this experience gave Tess an appreciation for life that would have made suicide unthinkable. Because Bee did not know that Tess had already had the baby, however, the police discount her claims that they were close and thus reject any insight into Tess that she might offer.

Because the police won't investigate, Bee begins digging into her sister's life, and there is much to be discovered--the married professor who fathered her child, the obsessed photography student who was stalking her, the pregnant Polish friend with the abusive boyfriend, the experimental genetic engineering treatment administered to her baby prenatally to cure cystic fibrosis, the money Tess suddenly had to spend on an expensive layette. Bee buzzes from suspecting one person to another as her own life falls apart--she is fired from her job, breaks up with her boyfriend, and seems to be ill.

As she investigates and grieves, Bee learns not only what happened to Tess and why, but gains insight into how she, her sister, and their mother dealt with the losses of their childhood. Through it all, Bee returns to her love for Tess to sustain her, even when she must face how sorely she failed the younger woman.

Favorite passage:
I used to think "stillborn" sounded peaceful. Still waters. Be still my beating heart. Still, small voice of calm. Now I think it's desperate in its lack of life, a cruel euphemism packing nails around the fact it's trying to cloak.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Condition, by Jennifer Haigh

The title of this book and its structure--it starts with a "prologue" set in 1976 just before the McKotch family discovers that young Gwen has a genetic condition (Turner's syndrome) that will prevent her from physically maturing normally--suggest that Gwen's condition is the root of the family's many difficulties. But this is certainly not the case, as the members of the family all have "conditions" that keep them from happiness and fully functional lives.

The parents--who are long-divorced by the late 1990s, when the real action of the book begins--seem to have been badly matched to begin with. Father Frank, who came from a working class family in Pennsylvania, is a scientist obsessed with achieving success; at the same time, his libido sometimes obscures his judgement. These factors combine in bad ways to sabotage his chances for the recognition he longs for. Mother Paulette is a New England patrician, who believes beige should be every woman's favorite color and is embarrassed to discuss her daughter's medical issues. Older brother Billy is a successful cardiologist in New York City, but he has distanced himself from his family because he is hiding the fact that he is gay from them. Gwen is underemployed in a museum and has limited social contacts. Younger brother Scott, a pothead who teaches at a mediocre private school, is struggling to find something meaningful about his life. As he deals with his son's constant problems in school, he realizes that he is probably ADHD himself.

When Gwen goes on a dive trip, falls in love, and decides to quit her job and live in the Caribbean, Paulette freaks out and tries to get each of the men to take action. Billy and Frank, both embroiled in problems of their own, refuse, but Scott is delighted by the idea that his mother is trusting him to act for the family and heads south to "handle" the situation. By the end of the book, all three children emerge changed--although not necessarily in ways that seem realistic.

I didn't actively dislike The Condition (although I despised the gratuitous 9/11 reference at the end), but I think I would have liked it more had it been more focused on Gwen and her challenges, as I thought it would be. The other members of the McKotch family were less interesting and their issues more mundane and self-inflicted (in Billy's case, I'm referring not to his sexuality but his choice not to tell his family about it). Perhaps if they were a bit less stereotypical, they might have been more sympathetic. But Gwen is the star of the book--and could have had an even bigger part.

Favorite passage:
Like everything else, maturity had disappointed Paulette.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, by Stieg Larsson

My son Kevin recently gave me a gift subscription to Audible, and I used my first credit to buy The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, which turned out to be a less-than-stellar choice. Why? First, it's too long for a novice novel listener. Second, there are too many characters with Swedish names (oh, what a surprise!) that sound alike, causing me considerable confusion. Third, the plot seems to involve various groups of police, journalists, lawyers, and bad people talking about their plans and investigations--which tends to lull one (especially one who spent four days sick last week) into a trance, if not to sleep. Consequently, I often found myself starting a section over because I had no idea what had happened.

I will give Audible another chance. Luckily, there are no more Lisbeth Salander/Mikael Blomkvist books left to read or listen to (I know, that's an extraordinarily mean thing to say since the poor author died). While the first two books in the series were incredibly violent, this one is just dull. Plus, Larsson once again gives us a climax followed by pages and pages and pages (or minutes and minutes and minutes) to resolve a few remaining plot points. Do I care who is managing the money Lisbeth stole, how her relationships with Miriam Wu or Mikael work out, or even what happens to her nefarious half-brother? I do not!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Underground Time, by Delphine de Vigan

Underground Time focuses on one day--May 20--in the lives of two Parisians. Mathilde is a single mother of three boys, who pulled herself out of the abyss following her husband's death by building a career as the deputy to the marketing director at an international consulting firm. Eight months ago, however, she dared to disagree with her boss, who has gradually isolated her, stripping her of responsibility and using his power to make her a "nonperson" in their department. Mathilde is breaking down under the pressure, but she clings to the irrational hope that something good will happen on May 20, as predicted by a psychic.

Thibault is a doctor who works for an emergency service. That morning, he has broken up with his lover, Lila, who "just isn't programmed to fall in love with him." As Thibault drives his car through the morass of traffic in Paris, tending to the sick and lonely, he, too feels his isolation as nearly unbearable.

As the two go through their days, feeling ever more alienation, the reader's sense of dread builds. You begin to wonder if their paths will cross and hope that they might somehow save each other.

Underground Time is a moving exploration of how a person's sense of self can be eroded. It is beautifully written; I often find translated works to have an emotional flatness, but that is certainly not the case with this fine book translated by George Miller.

Favorite passages:
She's often thought that shes' passed on to her children a kind of gaiety, a talent for joy. She's often thought that she has nothing more important to offer them than her laugh, beyond the infinite chaos of the world.

She strokes their sleep-crumpled faces and breathes in their smell. In the creases of their necks the arrangement of her own life seems simple to her.

His life is here. Even though none of it fools him. Not the music that comes through windows, nor the illuminated signs, nor the bursts of voices around television sets on evenings when there's football on. Even if he has known for a long time that the singular trumps the plural and how fragile conjunctions are.

What kind of adult do you become if you have discovered at such an early age that life can collapse? What kind of person? What does it equip you with? What are you missing?

The Sweet Life in Paris, by David Lebovitz

My quasi-daughter-in-law Leigh gave me this book for Christmas, in anticipation of a summer trip to Paris. Author David Lebovitz, dessert cookbook author and former chef at Chez Panisse, decided to move to Paris after his partner died, leaving him feeling unmoored in his life in San Francisco. The book is a light-hearted look at how Lebovitz learned to deal with various aspects of life in Paris--from dressing, to waiting in line, to shopping and dining. While the book is funny and the author clearly loves Paris, he paints a picture of an unwelcoming, if not somewhat frightening place.

Lebovitz describes walking the streets as "an annoying game of people-pinball" while avoiding copious amounts of dog poop, waiting in line as an opportunity to experience line-jumping and unwanted intimacy with the person standing behind you. Shopping is an experience constrained by numerous rules--you must say Bonjour to store personnel when you enter if you hope to receive any sort of service; on the other hand, you must not touch anything unless you are sure you want to buy it, as clerks will snatch up anything you touch and begin wrapping it for you. The chocolates, breads, and cheeses of Paris are divine--should personnel at the shops not take an unexplained dislike to you (Lebovitz greased many a wheel by taking brownies to people in the various businesses he patronizes). If you go into certain restaurants dressed like an American, you will be relegated to the back room and may be served bad fish. I am definitely going to have to read some more romanticized descriptions of Paris to get my courage back.

Lebovitz includes recipes at the end of each brief chapter of the book, many but by no means all desserts. He also lists sources in the U.S. for French foodstuffs and some of his favorite cafes, bakeries, cheese shops, and the like in Paris.

Favorite passage:
When they say, "The cheeses in France are the best in the world, they mean, "We are indeed a superior culture."
When they say, "We are tired of American culture," they mean, "Please don't show us Sharon Stone's vagina again."

Thursday, January 5, 2012

My Korean Deli: Risking Everything for a Convenience Store, by Ben Ryder Howe

Ben Ryder Howe's family came to the "New World" on the Mayflower. He is an editor at the Paris Review, the literary magazine founded by George Plimpton. His wife Gab's Korean-American family came to the United States just a few decades ago. Gab is a corporate lawyer who has burned out and wants to help her parents by putting the money she and Ben have saved to buy an apartment of their own (they live in her parents' basement) into buying a convenience store. Does this seem like a good idea? Well....

Howe weaves together the story of their deli ownership--the search for a suitable store to buy, the process of learning how to run the store, the oddball customers and employees, the struggle between he and his mother-in-law Kay about what inventory to stock, the horrendous fines levied by New York City for infractions of various kinds--with the story of his work at the Review (Plimpton dies during the two years covered in the book) and reflections on marriage, family, and the immigrant experience.

The parts of the book on both aspects of Howe's work life are funny--in surprisingly similar ways. Although Howe portrays himself as something of a dufus, he endeared himself to me through the respect he developed for the work of convenience store owners and employees and his struggles to understand his wife's family. I did wish, however, that he had given Gab and Kay--both fascinating characters--a chance to tell us their stories themselves.

Favorite passages:
Forgetting what it's like to suffer can be a good thing, since suffering can make people too cut-throat for society's good. But suffering also breeds certain capacities that are easily lost, such as the ability to focus and a willingness to engage with conflict. These are things that I believe Kay thinks I'm incapable of.

My mother-in-law . . . [is] the archetype of a certain New Yorker who, whatever her actual story, is assumed to have sacrificed so much and worked so hard just to be here that it almost makes you defensive. Why are YOU here? What's YOUR story? It's not only people like Gab who struggle to live up to their parents' example, in other words; it's all of us. New York never let syou just sit there and relax. So many people are dying to get in, and willing to do almost anything to stay once they get here.

. . . self-reliance is a compulsion, not a skill you acquire because you or your parents thought it would be good for character development. You acquire it by becoming scarred, and becoming incurably suspicious that if you don't take care of a job yourself, no one will.