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!


Thursday, July 5, 2012

Yes, Chef, by Marcus Samuelsson

Marcus Samuelsson is a "celebrity chef" whose story is probably better known than his food. He was born in Ethiopia, adopted with his sister by Swedish parents, and eventually worked his way to New York, where he became a noted chef at Aquavit and, more recently, at his Harlem restaurant Red Rooster. I first became aware of him when he won the second season of Top Chef Masters; I've seen him on other cooking shows and have always found his personality and passion for bringing African cuisine to the United States winning.  I was excited to read his new memoir, but also a bit nervous that he might reveal himself to be an egomaniac on the order of . . . well, best not to mention any names.

Yes, Chef does not disappoint.  It pays tribute to his Swedish family, while not underplaying how out of the mainstream he often felt as a black Swede. His decision to pursue cooking as a career (second choice to professional soccer player, which proved infeasible!) put him in an arena where the term for kitchen peon was often a word meaning a black person. Yet his work ethic, his relentless ambition to succeed as a chef, his love of flavors, and his skill in creating flavors in new combinations lifted him to a high level of success--a three-star review in the New York Times--at a young age. His descriptions of how the work of kitchens is organized and the grueling nature of working in the back of the house make clear that the life of a chef is challenging, if not punishing. Similarly, his references to restaurants that closed in the recent economic downturn remind the reader that running a successful restaurant is also difficult from the business standpoint.

At Samuelsson built on that early success with cookbooks and new restaurants with his partners at Aquavit, he was also getting to know his African family and contributing to his half-sisters' education. Proving that he's not perfect, Samuelsson reveals that he has a daughter who was born when he was 20 and whom he did not meet until she was in her mid-teens (he did pay child support at his parents' insistence).

As Samuelsson matured as a person and a chef, he found himself drawn to Harlem, wanting to create a restaurant that would build on his Ethiopian-Swedish roots while honoring African-American cooking, but more than that--to create a place where diverse people--different in age, in life experience, in ethnicity or religion--would be drawn to eat and build community. He also has committed himself to inspiring young African Americans' interest in healthy, delicious food but also to providing assistance to those seeking careers in the field. Of this he says, "In Sweden, we do a lot of cross-country skiing. And when you ski, just in the woods, not in a resort, the first skier has to plow. That's how I think of myself--with the restaurant, with the Harlem dining scene, I'm the guy who has to plow. . . . I have been witness to the poor quality of groceries available in Harlem, the lack of healthy food options, the whitewash of New York's find-dining scene--in the kitchen, among the staff, and among the guests. I'm activating myself to lead."

A couple months ago, someone posted a comment asking what inspired me, and I responded that I'm not easily inspired. But Yes, Chef and its author inspire me.

Favorite passages:
Torsten and Nini [his great uncle and aunt] had a louder, more brash style than my parents, and I loved to watch the way they mirrored each other. Their shouts and seemingly exasperated murmurs were the words of two old people who had stood, united, against the harshness of the cold blue sea for sixty years and made a life together. I looked at the two of them and the simple but hugely satisfying meals they shared, and I thought Torsten is right. That is a good life.

My father's death left me rudderless; I'd guided myself by him for as long as I could remember. He was the one who taught me how to read a map, bait a hook, make a fire, fix a bike, pitch a tent. He taught me, by example, that some principles, no matter how cliched they sound, really do mean something. Hard work is its own reward. Integrity is priceless. Art does feed the soul.

Monday, July 2, 2012

What Is Novel Conversations Reading?

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

August: The Giver, by Lois Lowry
September: One Book, One Broomfield selection (not yet announced)
October: State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett
November: Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
December: The Barbarian Nurseries, by Hector Tobar
January: Dreams of Joy, by Lisa See