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.