Monday, December 23, 2013

Best of 2013

I was in a reflective mood a couple nights ago, so I started working up my "Best of" list a little earlier than I usually do (I try to wait until the last day of the year, but . . .). Anyway, I reread my "Best of 2012" post and realized I feel the same at the end of every year--should have read more poetry, lots of mediocre books, yada, yada, yada. Nonetheless, I had some definite favorites this year, and here they are.

Best Novel
Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. This book's premise--that the protagonist is born and dies repeatedly, with subsequent lives changing in small and large ways as a result of her own or others' actions--was intriguing, and Atkinson's development of Ursula Todd's multiple stories was engrossing, informative (I gained a lot of insight into Great Britain during WWII), and occasionally gasp-inducing. While the book broke down a bit at the end, it is still by far the most memorable novel I read this year.

Honorable Mention: There Will be Apricots, by Jessica Sofer; The Round House, by Louise Erdrich; Frances and Bernard, by Colleen Bauer; Traps, by MacKenzie Bezos.

Best Mystery
I spent quite a bit of time in 2013 complaining about the bad mysteries I was reading, and many were really not worth the time it took to breeze through them. One that wasn't: Started Early, Took My Dog, by Kate Atkinson (yes, the same Kate Atkinson who wrote Life After Life). Part of the Jackson Brodie series, Started Early, Took My Dog is packed with human tragedies--numerous deaths (murders, accidents, suicides), child and animal abuse, dementia, family dysfunction, and buying and illegal adoption of children. It has numerous plots and subplots, many unresolved at the end of the book--but above all, it has wonderful characters who make us care about what happens to them.

Honorable Mention: The Husband's Secret, by Liane Moriarty (not sure it's really a mystery, but I'm going to say it is).

Best Short Stories
Signs and Wonders, by Alix Ohlin. Ohlin writes gracefully and develops strong characters within the confines of the short story format.  Her subject matter is the development of identity, as an individual, a friend, a lover/spouse, and a parent, and her stories are both disturbing and poignant.

Honorable Mention: March Was Made of Yarn, edited by Elmer Luke and David Karashima (this collection of material written in the year after Japan's triple tragedies of 3/11/11 was by far my most- read post of the year).

Best Poetry Collection
Valentines, by Ted Kooser. A collection of light poems written for Valentine's Day and charmingly illustrated with pen and ink drawings by Robert Hanna. A joyous book.

Honorable Mention: 180 More, edited by Billy Collins, who lures people to poetry like no one else (except possibly Garrison Keillor).

Best Nonfiction
Sister Mother Husband Dog Etc., by Delia Ephron. This book would be worth reading if it contained only the two moving essays about Ephron's late sister Nora. But it contains much more--sometimes funny, sometimes insightful, always entertaining.

Honorable Mention: Good Prose, by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd; I Can't Complain, by Elinor Lipman; In the Body of the World, by Eve Ensler; Mortality, by Christopher Hitchens; The End of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe -- it was a good year for nonfiction, even if much of it was nonfiction about illness and death.

Best Literary Moments of the Year
  • Skyping with author Lisa See at our January Novel Conversations meeting. She was gracious, funny, and informative, and we remain somewhat stunned by and totally appreciative of her generosity in sharing her time and her spirit. It was a book group to remember!
  • Seeing a friend from high school, Julie Santers, publish her first children's book. Charmingly illustrated by Brittany Weidner, Mimi's Tea Party is a lovely story, especially for grandmothers and grandchildren. Check it out on Amazon!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

How to Read the Air, by Dinaw Mengestu

Until people are no longer able to move, the immigrant experience will be fodder for novels. In How to Read the Air, Dinaw Mengestu draws on his own family's experience to create a complex multi-layered story of Ethiopian immigrants struggling to find purchase in the United States. The story is narrated by Jonas Woldemariam, a young man who was born in Peoria to immigrant parents, escaped his violent home (and, to a great degree, his relationship with his parents) to land in New York, but is struggling in both his career and his personal life.

When the book begins, Jonas is helping immigrants write their statements to be presented in an effort to gain refugee status. Jonas finds he has a gift for extending their stories, making them more tragic, a practice he will apply to his own life story before the book ends. At the center, he meets a young attorney, Angela, and the two get married. When Jonas is laid off from the immigrant center, Angela's connections at her law firm help Jonas get a part-time job teaching literature at a private school. Although Jonas enjoys the job, he realizes he is in career limbo--and he and Angela are in something of a suspended state as well, living together as husband and wife but never deepening their relationship, primarily because of Jonas's reticence..

Intercut with the narrative of Jonas and Angela is Jonas's telling of his parents' story, beginning with a trip from Peoria to Nashville intended to be a honeymoon but ending in disaster. Jonas is retracing their path at some time in the future, when he has left Angela and found himself needing to understand his parents' story. A third layer is his father's back story, a long and difficult trek from Ethiopia to Peoria, with stops in Sudan and various European cities along the way. This story, which is quite clearly confabulated, if not entirely fabricated, Jonas spends weeks telling his students during  an apparent breakdown following his father's death.

Mengestu's novel is about the simultaneous fear of disappearing and the inability to take the steps that will prevent that disappearance, about the search for redemption through retelling our stories and the impulse to rewrite those stories as we tell them--powerful themes. The author's prose is often graceful, if not poetic, and the complex structure supports the author's ideas about the mutability of our stories. And yet the book just missed the mark for me--it didn't feel fresh enough to draw me back(I had to renew it twice--and it's not even very long) and the ending left me flat.

Favorite passage:
The world around us is alive, he would have said, with our emotions and thoughts, and the space between any two people contains them all. He had learned early in his life that before any violent gesture there is a moment when the act is born, not as something that can be seen or felt, but by the change it precipitates in the air.

She almost pressed her hand against the window, as if there were something on the other side of the glass that she could touch, and in doing so would save her from the irrepressible fear that she was lost and would never find herself again. That gesture, however, would have made the longing that much more difficult to bear. It was better, she believed, not to translate emotions into actions, to let them lie dormant, because once they were expressed, there was no drawing them back. They enter the world and having done so become greater than us. Of all the lessons I learned from my mother, this was the first.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Launching Our 2014 Year of Reading

Here is what Novel Conversations will be reading in the coming months:

January:  The Sealed Letter, by Emma Donoghue
February:  The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach
March: Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter
April: The Magician’s Assistant, by Ann Patchett:
May: The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer
June: The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout
July:  And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini 

If you are in the Broomfield (CO) area, join us at 6:30 on the first Monday of the month at the Mamie Doud Eisenhower Library.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Summer Blowout, by Claire Cook

I saw this book recommended as a good beach read but somehow ended up reading it in the dead of winter. Perhaps that was a bad choice . . . or perhaps Summer Blowout just isn't very good. It's a silly story about Bella Shaughnessy, a make-up artist who works at her Irish family's Italian-themed chain of salons. She's recently divorced--her ex-husband slept with her half sister, who works with Bella, as does pretty much everyone in the family. Throughout the novel's hi-jinks, she inherits a dog from a dry-heaving bride, meets a nice entrepreneur who helps her develop a side business, and well, it's all just more of the same. The take-away for me is that writing a funny novel is harder than it looks--eccentric characters in slap-stick situations are not inherently humorous or, if they are, I have lost my sense of humor.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Three More Mysteries

The recent adventures in mystery have been a step up from the batch a month or so ago that caused me to despair of ever reading a decent mystery again. None of these three were great, but they were at least entertaining.

Anonymous Sources is written by journalist Mary Louise Kelly, who spent several years covering security and intelligence issues for NPR, CNN, and the BBC. That fact makes the book scary--it seems like a somewhat far-fetched plot about a reporter on the higher education beat at a Boston newspaper, a Harvard graduate who falls from a tower on campus the night after returning from a year abroad, an odd Pakistani nuclear scientist with a penchant for bananas, a sexy British lord who just happens to be working for MI6, and a plan to bomb Washington, DC. But this author knows something about the intelligence community--so it must be at least remotely feasible, right? Whether that is true or not, Anonymous Sources is fun, and I expect we'll hear more of reporter Alex James.

Second Watch is the latest title in J.A. Jance's J.P. Beaumont series. Beau is one of my favorite recurring characters and, although Jance has written a lot of books about him, she intersperses them with her other three (!!) series, which I think keeps the series a bit fresher than some others. Here Beau is recovering from knee surgery and, under the influence of painkillers, is having some bizarre dreams about his time in Vietnam and his first case as a detective, a case that was never solved. Beau decides to tug at some of the threads of the old case and (surprise, surprise) manages to unravel the mystery. The dream sequences seem kind of hokey, but the book still managed to hold my attention.

Silken Prey finds John Sandford's Lucas Davenport investigating another political scandal in Minnesota. Reading Silken Prey is a bit like watching the tv show Scandal--you realize (or at least profoundly hope) that the plot is ridiculous but you can't look away. The politicians depicted are generally so evil that it makes me feel a little less depressed about the real politicians driving me mad. Crazy mystery as therapy, perhaps?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Next Thing on My List, by Jill Smolinski

Every once in a while, I dip into the "chick lit" category (I hate that phrase) . . . and usually I am reminded why people sneer at chick lit. The Next Thing on My List has a somewhat interesting premise: thirty-something June Parker is driving home from her first Weight Watchers meeting, when she offers another attendee, Marissa Jones, a ride. Unfortunately, they get into an accident and Marissa is killed. Consumed by guilt, June visits Marissa's grave on the six-month anniversary of her death. She runs into Marissa's brother Troy there and rashly tells him she is going to complete Marissa's list of "Twenty things to do before I turn 25" that she found in her car after the accident. The rest of the book recounts her efforts to complete those tasks, which range from "dare to go braless" and "kiss a stranger" to "change someone's life." Perhaps it goes without saying that the process changes June's life.

I had multiple problems with the way the book unfolded. First I didn't think the author's attempts to blend humor and pathos were particularly effective; in fact, they seemed to work against each other. Second, and I admit I could be wrong about this, I couldn't believe that Marissa's family would find June's quest in any way healing or even acceptable, given that she was driving when Marissa was killed and that she kept this private writing of their daughter secret from them for six months (and only revealed it because of a chance meeting). Finally, June's eventual romantic connection (presumably a necessity for chick lit--and don't get me wrong, I love a good romantic connection) ridiculous--despite the fact that you can see it coming. I can only assume that Smolinski believed she had created a character who was a lovable diamond in the rough, whereas to this reader, she had created a one-dimensional buffoon!

I only hope Jennifer Weiner won't track me down and shame me for dissing the genre.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Generosity: An Enhancement, by Richard Powers

Generosity: An Enhancement is the fourth Powers novel I have read. Two--The Time of Our Singing and The Gold Bug Variations--are massive and insanely complex books that blend science, music, and a variety of questions about life and human nature. I loved The Time of Our Singing but found The Gold Bug Variations went a bit farther into the science than I wanted to go. Generosity: An Enhancement is more akin to The Echo-Maker--smaller scale but still focusing on science as a way into important questions, in this case: What accounts for happiness? If happiness is genetically determined, what are the implications if genes can be manipulated to make everyone happy?

Generosity has two narrative threads. One involves Russell Stone, a sad-sack failed writer who edits a crowd-sourced journal and is teaching a creative nonfiction course at a local college; Candace Weld, a counselor at the college who becomes involved with Russell; and Thassadit Amzwar, a young Algerian woman and student in Stone's class. Amzwar is preternaturally optimistic, even when recounting horrible experiences in her life. She is upbeat and exudes a spirit of generosity that draws people to her. Russell becomes obsessed with her exuberant happiness and decides she has a condition called hyperthymia. When Thassa is assaulted by another student, Russell mentions this condition to the police, and it ends up being reported in the media.

The second thread features science journalist Tonia Schiff and Thomas Kurton, a genetics researcher who believes the future of humanity will be changed by scientists' ability to manipulate genes; Kurton intends to be one of those who profit from this process. Kurton's interest in studying Thassa and escalating media  pressure begin to affect Thassa negatively--and Russell and Candace along with her.

With these two threads, Powers gives us a meta-narrative in which the novel's narrator (who is probably Stone but may not be) comments on the nature of fiction and nonfiction, character, plot development, and the functions of literature.

For me, all of this does not quite come together as a novel. While Russell is a three-dimensional (and pathetic) character, the others are not.  Thassa does not seem authentic--perhaps a genetically happy person is beyond description (or is simply rather boring). Kurton and Schiff are too obviously devices for explicating ideas in which Powers is interested. Despite my not really loving the book, it does present interesting ideas about happiness, science, and writing. Nothing about its flaws makes me any less convinced that Richard Powers is a genius--but a human one whose books are stimulating but not perfect.

Favorite passage
When you're sure of what you're looking at, look harder.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami, Gretel Ehrlich

When the "three sorrows" of March 11, 2011, struck Japan, American author Gretel Ehrlich felt compelled to visit the affected area and tell the stories of the people who endured that terrible day and the difficult months that followed. From June through December 2011, she spent most of her time traveling through Miyagi and Iwate Prefectures, where the devastation was nearly incomprehensible.

Ehrlich tells the stories of people who lost everything in the earthquake and subsequent tsunami--homes, loved ones, livelihoods, literally everything except their lives. Many showed immense courage during these events and in the days afterwards. But it is the pain and sorrow that linger--the mother who rents a back hoe and, day after day, searches for her daughter's body in the wreckage of an elementary school; the older man who plants a garden post-tsunami only to have it wiped out by the torrential rains of a typhoon; the elderly people who see no better option than suicide. And always there is the the fear--many who survived the tsunami now understandably feel panic at even a small tremor. Ehrlich intersperses her own observations and responses with the blog postings of a Japanese fisherman, Hirayama, who, along with his boat, survived the tsunami. These excerpts provide a much-appreciated Japanese perspective.

Layered on all of this is the radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant--as people struggle to rebuild their lives, they are being exposed to elevated levels of a variety of radioactive materials while being lied to by their government. One can only imagine that the long-term health effects will be serious, widespread, and possibly denied by the Japanese government.

Ehrlich's book is an eye-opener for someone who has followed the events in the newspapers and through occasional Facebook posts from a friend in Tokyo. Oddly, I found myself slightly torn about the book. I appreciated Ehrlich's effort to make readers outside of Japan more fully aware of the magnitude of this disaster; she certainly put her own health at risk by choosing to travel in the area for an extended period. At the same time, I feel slightly disturbed at the notion of the American journalist prying into the personal pain of Japanese people (and, from time to time, ignoring people's warnings not to try to get to one place or another)--perhaps irrational, but it is there.

My hesitations notwithstanding, Facing the Wave will deepen virtually any American reader's understanding of the three sorrows (I much prefer this phrase to the alliterative "Triple Tragedies").

Side notes: If you are wondering why I have recently read two books about this topic, it is for a work project--but it is turning out to be rewarding. Also, my son, who has been in Tokyo for the past 14 months (and has lived in Japan for five of the past 12 years), reports that the awarding of the 2020 Olympics to Tokyo may cause further setbacks in the rebuilding efforts, as there are expected to be shortages of building materials, and Olympic building will take priority.

Favorite passages:
I'm looking at fiction; I'm looking at truth; my eyes are wet from the downpour.

To say that the tsunami survivors' attitude toward their tremendous loss is stoicism would be to underestimate the complexity of their response. Courage and self-discipline are evident everywhere in this deeply traditional culture, as well as an ability to accept "what is"without sentimentality, even as the government persists with its numbing denials. But the pain of loss is staggering; there's confusion, nightmarish fear, and there are suicides.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Obituary Writer, by Ann Hood

The Obituary Writer intercuts the stories of two women. Vivien Lowe is a young single woman in San Francisco in the early 1900s. She meets a suave older man, David, and falls in love. Soon, she is defying convention by living with David. Then, on the day of the Great San Francisco Earthquake, David disappears. While it is obvious to everyone else that David is dead, Vivien cannot accept that fact. She becomes obsessed with the idea that he has amnesia and is somewhere in the world, lost and unable to find his way back to her. After moving to Napa to escape the memories in the city and to be near her friend Lottie, she by accident becomes a writer of nontraditional obituaries that uncannily capture the character of the deceased and provide genuine comfort to the bereaved. Still, Vivien herself cannot move past her grief for David, more than a decade after his disappearance.

The second character is Claire, a pregnant wife and mother in 1961. While working on the Kennedy campaign, Claire started an affair with another volunteer; eventually, her husband Peter found Claire and her lover together. Now she has broken off the affair but believes that the child she is carrying is her lover's rather than her husband's. The family sets out in the midst of a blizzard to drive from Virginia to Rhode Island for Peter's mother's 80th birthday. The trip is a disaster from the start, and Claire spends most of it wondering how she can possibly stay married to Peter, who treats her like a child who's been bad.

Although Claire is in a situation that anyone who remembers gender relations in the 1960s can feel sympathy for, she is not a sympathetic character and it's hard to care very much about her story, which casts both men and women in the early 60s in a rather unfavorable light (the men are condescending and overbearing; the women are consumed with trivial concerns). Vivien and her story are much more interesting and better able to carry the weight of the themes that Hood wants the reader to consider--grief and loss, hope, love in its many varieties. The mystery of how the two stories relate isn't revealed until near the end of the book, but it was fairly easy to guess before too many chapters had gone by.

The Obituary Writer isn't a bad book, but had Hood created a Claire who could balance Vivian, it could have been a very good book.

Favorite passages
The parents of dead children wail. They pull at their clothes and their hair, as if they need to leave their bodies, shed their skin, disappear.

This was how to help a family who had just lost their child. Wash the clothes. Make soup. Don't ask them what they need. Bring them what they need. Keep them warm.  Listen to them rant and cry and tell their story over and over.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

I Can't Complain: (All Too) Personal Essays, by Elinor Lipman

I have always enjoyed Elinor Lipman's humorous novels, with their many insights into human nature. This collection of essays, most previously published in newspapers or magazines, reinforces many of my preconceptions about her based on her fiction--she is funny, caring, and a keen observer of the sweet and sour of human interactions.

Three of the essays brought me to tears (which was somewhat embarrassing when I was listening to the book while grocery shopping). One of these was the story Lipman's friend Bobby who became pregnant at age 30, didn't marry the baby's father, but managed to build a complicated and loving family that included not only baby Julia, her father, Bobby's eventual husband, their son Max, and the extended families of all three adults. The depiction of how these families--Jewish and Catholic--came together at Julia's bat mitzvah is really a look at humanity at its best. Similarly, "A Tip of the Hat to the Old Block" is a lovely description of the Irish neighborhood in which Lipman spent her early years; it was her recounting of the people from the old block who came to her parents' funerals, decades after her family moved out of the neighborhood, that caused my grocery store tears. Finally, her tribute to her late husband, "This One's for You," is lovely and sad.

Lipman's topics range widely--from having one of her books made into a movie, to sex education for her son, writing blurbs for other authors' books, her mother's aversion to condiments, and her favorite book (The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis). It's reassuring to me, since I tend to think of authors as somewhat elevated personages, to know that Lipman has watched soap operas and golf, tried Internet dating with not-so-great results, and held grudges. I also enjoyed her essays about writing, particularly the one about naming her characters.

I listened to the audio version of I Can't Complain, read by the author, whose voice was surprisingly youthful; I enjoyed her reading very much.

Favorite passage:
My sister and I do solemnly believe, no, we insist, that each of us was unquestionably her father's favorite child, the shiniest apple of his eye. The argument goes like this. "I was Daddy's favorite child." "No, I'm sorry, I was." . . Finally, we agree to disagree, recognizing what a sweet and lucky argument ours is.

Ashes are sadder than I ever could have imagined.

Friday, November 8, 2013

All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren

All the King's Men is often described as being the story of a Huey Long type character (Willie Stark), who begins his political career as a populist who wants to help the people and ends it as a corrupt governor who will stop at nothing to consolidate his own power.  But I see it as the story of how an everyman--Jack Burden, the book's narrator--can be corrupted by proximity to power. Jack's early life was rather aimless. He was a law student, a history student, and a reporter before he became Willie Stark's right-hand man, taking on any job from shepherding a tax bill through the legislature, to coordinating a photo op at the governor's family farm, to digging up dirt on a family friend who has been nothing but good to Jack.

The story of Jack's work with Willie Stark--"the Boss"--is interspersed with memories of Jack's youth--his romance with Anne Stanton and his friendship with her brother, Dr. Adam Stanton; his troubled relationship with his mother, who lives with a much younger man; his youthful and short-lived marriage; his research as a Ph.D. student in history (readers are treated to a long description of the Civil War era family he was hoping to write his dissertation on). Years after their romance ended, Jack  learns that Anne Stanton is having an affair with "the Boss"; he is devastated--and it is the affair that sets off the events that result in the deaths of both "the Boss" and Dr. Stanton. In the wake of these events, Jack falls into a deep depression but eventually pulls himself out and sets his life on a more positive path--although I am unconvinced that he even then has taken full responsibility for his past actions.

All the King's Men won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947 and has appeared on numerous "best novels" lists. It certainly explores timeless themes--the corrupting effects of power, the consequences of not taking responsibility for one's actions, identity, and even original sin. For some readers, the poetic language (Warren was, after all, a poet) and style are probably moving; I found them ill suited to the book and quite often repetitious, pretentious, and annoying. An example: "There is nothing more alone than being in a car at night in the rain. I was in the car. And I was glad of it. Between one point on the map and another point on the map, there was the being alone in the car in the rain." And he continues in this vein to the point of tedium.  For me, Jack was not redeemed by either his evolving life philosophy or his actions--indeed, he was a thoroughly repulsive character.  Though I tend to blame myself when I don't care for a classic, I have to say I much preferred Ethan Canin's  recent America, America, which shares structural and thematic similarities with All the King's Men but is set in the Vietnam era. 

Favorite passage
The best luck always happens to people who don't need it.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver

I started Flight Behavior several months ago. Then I started it again . . . and again. I finally finished it last night, a day after we discussed it at book group. Somehow, I struggled to get past the first chapter, in which protagonist Dellarobia Turnbow was hiking up the mountain behind her Tennessee home to an assignation with a hot young telephone lineman. She turns back after seeing the mountainside pulsing with a glowing and rippling orange color. She doesn't know what she is seeing because she isn't wearing her glasses (her mother-in-law Hester's adages about girls who wear glasses ring in her head), but she sees it as an alarm waking her to the mistake she is about to make.

Dellarobia married Cub (whose dad's name is Bear) when she was 17 and pregnant. Although the baby came early and died, they stayed married, and 11 years later they have a son and daughter, Preston and Cordelia. They live on the corner of her in-law's property, where Dellarobia feels trapped and engages in serial crushes. The cash-strapped family is planning to log on the mountain, but when others wearing their glasses see the orange phenomenon--millions of Monarch butterflies roosting in Tennessee instead of Mexico--the plans are put on hold.

The discovery of the Monarchs has ripple effects. Scientists, led by the charismatic Ovid Byron (Dellarobia's next crush), come to the mountain to study the butterflies and providing Dellarobia with her first paid job in years. Members of local churches think the butterflies are a sign of special grace from God. Tourists flock to the mountain, giving Hester income opportunities beyond her sheep. As Dellarobia becomes involved in the scientists' investigations, she also becomes increasingly aware of the emptiness of her marriage. The problems in her personal ecosystem echo those in the butterflies'--whether either she or the butterflies will ultimately have a positive solution is not completely resolved.

Barbara Kingsolver is a biologist by training and weaves a lot of information about environmental issues into the narrative--something that many members of our book group really enjoyed. Some were also moved by Dellarobia's evolution while others found her less than fully engaging. I fell into the latter group--I just didn't care very much about Dellarobia and, because of that, felt the book's pace was much too slow. Like my book group friend Amber, I longed for the multiple narrators and less straightforward chronology of some of Kingsolver's earlier works. Her Prodigal Summer also deals with environmental issues but is a more rewarding read.

Favorite passages:
Dellarobia felt an entirely new form of panic as she watched her son love nature so expectantly, wondering if he might be racing toward a future like some complicated sand castle that was crumbling under the ride. She didn't know how scientists bore such knowledge. People had to manage terrible truths.

. . . the weeds were still here, it was plain to see, encircling the whole pasture, threaded through wire and post and skeletal trees. With their glassy stems encased in ice the weeds looked more substantial than the fence itself, the seasons of secret growth revealed in a sudden disclosure of terrible, cold beauty.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

March Was Made of Yarn, edited by Elmer Luke and David Karashima

Subtitled Reflections on the Japanese Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Meltdown, March Was Made of Yarn is a collection of short pieces (mostly short stories) written in the aftermath of the 3/11/11 triple tragedy in Japan. The first story, "The Island of Eternal Life," by Yoko Tawada, is set circa 2021; Japan has been cut off from the rest of the world since 2015. Operating without electricity, the people have come to rely once again on wood-block printing; doctors work by the light of fireflies in their desperate efforts to find a cure for radiation sickness. The government has been privatized, leaving the people even less sure about its claims that no radiation is escaping from the abandoned nuclear power plants. It is a catastrophic vision of life after the triple tragedy.

Other stories are more "in the moment," focusing on what happened during and immediately after the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown. My favorite story, "The Charm," by Kiyoda Shigematsu, focuses on Machiko, who 40 years ago lived in a town nearly destroyed by the tsunami. The events of 3/11 leave her depressed; as others in Tokyo return to their normal lives, she struggles. Finally, she decides to visit the devastated town, not sure what she will do there but compelled to go nonetheless. What happens there reconnects her with her childhood, in touching ways. Much about this story reminded me of the way it felt to live 2000 miles from New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania in the months following 9/11.

Another story I liked a lot was "Lulu," by Shinji Ishii, in which ghostly women and a dog that may or may not be real, a ghost, or a figment of 32 children's shared imagination comfort children traumatized by the tsunami. While stories featuring ghosts don't generally appeal to me, this one was gentle, mysterious, and quite lovely.

Among the book's other pieces are an angry manga by Brother and Sister Nishioka ("Their so-called democracy is just a system of excuses for profit, an alibi for apathy"); Hiromi Kawakami's prize-winning story about a picnic with a bear, which the author has rewritten to be set in a forest contaminated with radioactive material; two lovely poems; and much more. A few stories gave me that "hunh?" feeling when I got to the end, but overall the authors have, as the editors put it, "seen through the thick haze of the moment to clarity."

Favorite passages

Words grown old from overuse
Come alive again with our pain
Grow deep with our sadness
As if backed by silence
They grow toward new meanings
(From the poem "Words," by Shuntaro Tanikawa)

I've come to feel, however, that hope isn't something that permeates the whole. Hope isn't born all at once, like buds erupting in spring; nor does it envelop the landscape like freshly fallen snow. . . .

I think that maybe hope is like one of those little eucalyptus leaves. You suddenly become aware of its existence and potential; you figure out what you need to do, and you set goals; you gather information and knowledge and, if necessary, capital; and then you take action. Whatever the scale of the project, the buds of hope at first seem tiny--insignificant and unreliable. There's no way to be sure that hey'll really  blossom. But once you make the first step forward, possibilities begin to take shape and show themselves. . . .

Buds of hope are definitely popping out, one by one.
(From the essay "Little Eucalyptus Leaves," by Ryu Murakami)

Thursday, October 24, 2013

After Her, by Joyce Maynard

Rachel and Patty are sisters, growing up in Marin County in the late 70s. They adore their police officer father, Anthony Toricelli, even though they rarely see him once their parents divorce. In actuality, they don't see their mother all that much either because she retreats to her bedroom as soon as she gets home from work. The girls are left mainly on their own, and they devise varied and creative ways of entertaining themselves, roaming the mountain behind their house, watching the Brady Bunch through the windows of their neighbors' houses, and acting out stories that Rachel writes. Patty loves basketball and dogs, while Rachel loves to write, believes she has the second sight, and worries about getting her period.

When a serial killer goes on a rampage on their mountain, their father's sudden fame as the lead detective on the case is initially a boon to Rachel's social life--the "cool" kids at her junior high are suddenly interested in the insider information she gets from her father (his good looks don't hurt either). When the killings continue and the police have no leads, however, their father's health and Rachel's popularity both suffer. Rachel becomes obsessed with the case, believing she is having visions of the crime scenes and deciding she can help her father catch the killer. The results cause public humiliation for Rachel, Patty, and their dad.

The book then jumps forward 30 years. Rachel is a mystery/thriller writer whose life has been shaped by the Sunset Strangler case. She still hopes to vindicate her family, and her efforts seem nearly as ill-considered as her strategies as a teenager.

While the book is ostensibly a mystery/thriller, at its core it is a coming-of-age story that beautifully depicts the relationship between the two sisters and their love for their father, as well as their dawning realization of his flaws.  The book is not perfect by any means--the girls' mother is not well drawn (she's depressed but she might as well be dead), the twists revealed when Rachel is an adult are not very surprising, and the ending is a bit too neat. Nonetheless, it's a book worth reading.

Favorite passage:
If she had the right dance partner, he said, a woman should be able to close her eyes and let him take her anywhere. But steer clear of a man with a limp hand. You want to feel strong pressure on your back, and his hand pressing against yours, as he led. It's fine if he smells your hair--you want a sensual man--but not his hand on your rear end. And if he doesn't walk you back to your table after the dance, he's danced his last with you.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

See Now Then, by Jamaica Kincaid

See Now Then has left me somewhat flummoxed. Written in a stream-of-consciousness and highly repetitive style, the book is a portrait of a family where hate is as prevalent as love. The family lives in a small town in Vermont, where Mrs. Sweet writes, gardens, knits, cooks, raises her children, and struggles to pay the bills while Mr. Sweet teaches, composes music, and thinks about beheading his son. While Mr. Sweet freely admits to hating his wife, she claims to love him--though her descriptions of him suggest there is little to love (e.g., he is small and reminds people of a rodent). Their children--the "young Heracles" and "beautiful Persephone," essentially always referred to in that way--are a source of additional conflict. Persephone, her father's favorite, is no more than a cypher. Although a bit better developed as a character, Heracles is essentially a stereotypical boy at various stages of male maturation.

In addition to probing what she sees as the closely linked familial emotions of love and hate, Kincaid is clearly playing with the idea of time and the blurring between past and present, but her treatment of this topic did not move me. (Sample passage:  "She was thinking of her now, knowing that it would most certainly become a Then even as it was a Now, for the present will be now then and the past os now then and the future will be a now then, and that the past and the present and the future has no permanent present tense, has no certainty in regard to right now."  Is that so?)

Kincaid includes many odd details, particularly details regarding where Mrs. Sweet bought various household items. Some of the details are repeated over and over  (I would love to see the results of a text search revealing the number of times Kincaid reminded us that the family lived in the Shirley Jackson house); I"m sure the author had some purpose in this repetition, but for me it served only as a trigger for tuning out.

I'm not sure if I would have liked this book better if I had read it in print, but I found Jamaica Kincaid's reading of the book strangely ill-suited to the content. I realize this is about my ingrained biases (many reader reviewers on Amazon and other sites disagree with me) and doesn't make any logical sense, given that Mrs. Sweet was Caribbean, but Kincaid's lilt seemed much too upbeat and calm for this story of family dysfunction.

 See Now Then was reviewed twice in the New York Times; one was a rave, the other a pan. So, while willing to concede that I may simply be too unsophisticated a reader to appreciate its post-modern greatness, I don't feel too bad saying I would not recommend this book.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Two More Mystery Deadends

The quest to find a good mystery continues . . . Compound Fractures, the final title in Stephen White's Alan Gregory series, is awful. I tried (not very hard) to think of a more polite description, but it's not possible. It is truly terrible. Don't read it!

With the publication of W Is for Wasted, Sue Grafton is obviously nearing the end of her Kinsey Millhone series--and I feel like she's getting ready for that. Two of Kinsey's ex-boyfriends make brief appearances, suggesting there may be a showdown for her affections in X, Y, or Z. In addition, Kinsey for the first time encounters members of her father's family (orphaned at five, she met her mother's family several titles ago). It all feels like the beginning of a long wrap-up. The mystery itself isn't a bad one, but it isn't a great one either. One problem is that it hinges on a rather huge coincidence; another is that it develops very slowly (both of these books are longer than they need to be). Still, better than quite a few mysteries I've read lately.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis

I read The Screwtape Letters when I was a teenager and remember thinking it was a great book. So, even though I am not religious (and it's a book aimed primarily, I would say, at Christians), I decided to reread it.

The Screwtape Letters is a brief novel, written as a series of letters from Screwtape, a devil who is relatively high in the hierarchy of hell, to his nephew Wormwood, an apprentice demon who has been assigned the task of winning the soul of a young man referred to as "The Patient." Screwtape's letters are filled with advice about how to tempt The Patient away from God based close observation of human psychology and morality. Wormwood is not a quick study, however, and he even has the effrontery to report to a higher authority some remarks of Screwtape's that might be considered heretical. Screwtape's tone becomes increasingly irritated as Wormwood misses opportunity after opportunity to draw The Patient to the dark side; his closing to every letter, "Your affectionate uncle," sounds more and more ironic. Finally, he gleefully informs his nephew that he is looking forward to feasting on Wormwood's soul, the price Wormwood will pay for his utter failure as a demon.

I enjoyed The Screwtape Letters this time around, although probably not as much as I did back in 1968 (by the end, I was thinking it was becoming slightly tedious). Lewis's insights are relevant, I think, to anyone who wants to be a good person, whether Christian or not, and the way in which he has conveyed his moral guidance is both clever and entertaining. Interestingly, Lewis found writing as Screwtape--he called it "demonic ventroliquism"--unpleasant and vowed not to write any more letters after completing the book; he did, however, write an after-dinner speech by Screwtape, in which Lewis critiqued education in the 1950s.

Favorite passages
Some ages are lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them yet faster asleep. Other ages, of which the present is one, are unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame them.

The present is the point at which time touches eternity. . . . Thought about the future inflames hope and fear.  

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Sister Mother Husband Dog (etc.), by Delia Ephron

"Losing Nora," the first essay in Delia Ephron's new collection, is a gem. Ephron describes her relationship with her beloved--but often difficult--older sister Nora, Nora's illness, and her own grief in the wake of her sister's death. Her forthrightness is stunning and gives the essay a depth that it would not have had had she glossed over the challenges of her relationship with her sister. When, for example,  she feels annoyed at the memorial service because two people quote lines they attribute to Nora ("that was my line"), it's both funny and heartbreaking.

A number of the other essays are more focused on everyday life--her dog, the frustrations of dealing with online ordering and with banks, the correlation between weather and her hair's behavior, and having her domain name hijacked by someone in Japan. Sometimes, an essay that starts out being about one topic takes a turn and ends up somewhere else completely; her paean to New York City's bakeries becomes a reflection on whether we can "have it all" and what "it all" might mean.

The last two essays return to her family. In "Why I Can't Write About My Mother," she looks at the contradictions that were her mother--a talented book-loving writer who had a career when most women didn't, but was also an alcoholic with a gift for withholding what her daughters needed. "Collaboration" returns to her relationship with Nora, describing the joy and challenges of working together to co-author a number of films and their final project, the Broadway play, Love, Loss and What I Wore, which they liked to call The Vagina Monologues without the vaginas.

It is probably obvious that the three essays about family resonated most with me, but the entire Sister Mother Husband Dog (etc.)  collection is well worth reading.

Favorite passage

Nora thanked me by sending me roses--two dozen gorgeous plump peach roses in full bloom--the sister in the hospital sending flowers to the one who was not.

I have thought a lot about this. More than anything, I think about this.

There are things a person does that you could talk about forever. They are the key. They reveal character, they unlock secrets. I think Nora's sending me flowers was that.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Where Are All the Good Mysteries?

I've read a number of mysteries lately that I haven't written about on the blog because they just weren't good, but after the last disappointment, I decided to grant myself a rant. Why are the mysteries I'm reading so bad? Or can you only read mysteries for so long before nothing can please you (and I have been reading them for a long time)?

I have trouble not picking up a new book in a series I've been reading for years--even if the past few titles in the series have been less than stellar. And all four books from long-running series that I read during this period were pretty terrible--The Twelfth of Never, by James Patterson (I've already given up on the Alex Cross series and the Women's Murder Club needs to go as well),  Beast by Faye Kellerman (completely implausible and poorly proofread), The Whole Enchilada by Diane Mott Davidson (a series that has become utterly ridiculous), and Bones of the Lost by Kathy Reichs (just dull, with Ryan making only a cameo appearance). These series have clearly jumped the shark.

The problem lies not just with series mysteries, however. I also read two stand-alone mysteries that failed to thrill. If You Were Here, by Alafar Burke, features a muddled plot filled with ethically challenged characters who act in inexplicable ways. Even more disappointing was A Dangerous Fiction, by Barbara Rogan, whose fiction I have enjoyed in the past. Rogan provides an insider's look into the world of literary agents, which is interesting, and the more serious aspects of the story--the unpacking of the protagonist's memories, which she has shaped to make her marriage to a renowned author, dead now three years, the glittering foundation of her life--could serve as the foundation of an interesting novel. The mystery, however, feels unimportant (with apologies to the two murdered characters), and the tacked-on romance is both unbelievable and superfluous.

Plotting is really everything in mysteries--and if the plotting is unbelievable or confused or completely illogical, fuggedaboutit. Well-developed characters are a nice bonus--but they can't save a poor plot. Perhaps Faye Kellerman's work illustrates this best--Rina Lazarus and Peter Decker are not only three-dimensional characters, they're characters we would like to know. But, as the last several titles in the series demonstrate, two great characters are not enough. I almost get the feeling that series authors think they need to make the stories more and more extreme to keep readers interested--but I think that assumption is wrong. Mystery readers like a plot that is clever but makes sense . . . so just give it to us!

Favorite passage (yes, I had one!)

That's always the way of it: bereavement outlasts its ceremonies.
From A Dangerous Fiction

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Tinkers, by Paul Harding

This Pulitzer Prize-winning and brief novel is an unusual work. It is written in self-consciously poetic language, does not have a conventional plot, and opens by telling the reader that the protagonist--the elderly George Washington Crosby--is eight days from death. George is hallucinating and, as his mind roams, he remembers his childhood as the eldest child of a tinker--a man who drove a mule-powered wagon around rural New England selling various household necessities and fixing things for a penny or two. George's father Howard has seizures, which, in the 1920s, were seen as a sign of mental illness. When Howard becomes aware that his wife is planning to have him institutionalized, he leaves the family, breaking George's heart but leaving him a legacy of tinkering. After his retirement from teaching, George develops a passion for fixing and collecting old clocks.

The book becomes confusing when Harding switches to Howard's perspective. Are these memories, too, part of George's hallucination?  Or is Harding simply providing back story? And why are a few passages in first person, rather than the third person employed in most of the book? Howard's story does help the reader understand why he left his family without even confronting his wife about her plans--his own mother institutionalized his father, a Methodist minister, when his dementia reached the point that he told his parishioners that the devil might not be so bad.

Interspersed throughout the book are quoted passages from an old book about clocks, accentuating Harding's focus on time and its meaning. This device was not particularly effective when listening to the audio book--I wondered if it might be more effective in print. In fact, I wondered if there were typographical or layout clues in the print edition that might have alleviated my confusion about the shifting perspectives--the narrator, Christian Rummel, did little to make those shifts clear.

In perusing other reader reviews of the novel, I discovered that people seemed to either love or hate the book, with the poetic language being a key factor for both factions. I don't feel that strongly about the book either way. Many passages were quite lovely; on the other hand, the prose occasionally felt somewhat pretentious, and my confusion about the point of view interfered with my ability to enjoy the author's reflections on life, love, death, family, time, nature, and every damn thing.

Favorite passage:
. . . be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusions in your soul mean that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of this world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it. And when you resent the ache in your heart, remember: You will be dead and buried soon.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Paris Was the Place, by Susan Conley

Willow ("Willie") Pears is a 30-year-old American teacher living in Paris in 1989.  At the beginning of the book, Willie is just starting to work as a volunteer teacher at a center for girls who are seeking asylum in France. Her job is to teach them how to tell their stories movingly and convincingly when they have their court hearings. As she works with them, she becomes over-involved in one girl's case, and when Gita is denied asylum, Willie collaborates in her escape from the center. Not surprisingly, her services are no longer desired at the center and, to make matters worse, her boyfriend Macon, who also happens to be Gita's lawyer, is furious with her.

Meanwhile, Willie  is terribly concerned about her brother Luke's health (to the reader it is obvious that he has HIV/AIDS, but this is not revealed until midway through the book). She is also planning a trip to India, where she will research a poet about whom she is planning to write a book. She reconciles with Macon and he accompanies her on the trip, during which she suffers a miscarriage. When they return, Macon has become much sicker and within a short period of time dies.

A lot happens in this book, but the threads of the story aren't well integrated. The story of Willie's work with the immigrant girls could have been the foundation of an interesting novel, but once Gita runs away, that thread disappears until the very end of the book, replaced by Willie's trip to India and Luke's dying as the focus of the story. I found Macon and Willie's love story to be distracting and unbelievable, perhaps because Willie seems so unlovable. Everything that happens in the world is about her--Gita's story is not about Gita, it's about Willie; Luke's story is not about Luke, it's about Willie, and on and on. My distaste for the character was only strengthened by the fact that the audio book's narrator, Cassandra Campbell, gives her an annoying voice that becomes increasingly whiny as the book progresses. While the ending suggests Willie is having deep insights into how people continue in the face of great pain, I was unmoved.

I can't remember why I downloaded this book, and I wouldn't recommend anyone else do so.

Favorite passages:
. . . they can't stop guessing and talking about Stein's intentions, as if the author's intention was always everything,  and that a deeper subconscious muscle wasn't ever at work.

This is the thing about words: they fail, but you still have to use them.

She spends too much time in her head. There's more pain in there than a girl should have to live with.

[I did enjoy some of the author's language, but it did not balance out my issues with story construction and character.]

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish: A Novel, by David Rakoff

David Rakoff, who died last year, shortly after finishing this book, was primarily an essayist. That fact makes this slim volume even more of an oddity to me. Why? Because the book is written in rhyming couplets. There is something about rhyming couplets that suggests lightness and humor--and many of Rakoff's lines are, in fact, quite funny, sometimes ribald--I mean, someone who rhymes pubic lice and paradise cannot be taken seriously, right?

Yet the story Rakoff weaves from couplet after couplet is quite serious, grappling with many of the  societal issues of the 20th century. The first segment introduces us to Margaret, a 13-year-old girl working in a Chicago meat-packing plant in the 1920s. When her mother's boyfriend molests her, the mother puts her on a train--in a freight car, no less--to the West coast. Although we know she survives, Margaret mostly disappears after we meet Clifford's family. They live in LA in the 1950s. Clifford's dad has had a stroke; while his mother complains, she works and cares for her husband, encouraging her son to develop his artistic talent. Once a year, her sister Sally and her daughter Helen visit. Clifford does not understand why Helen cannot see her own beauty, but with him, she feels freer than with anyone else.

Clifford grows up to draw a comic strip and enjoy the free-wheeling life of a gay man in San Francisco in the 1970s, until his friends start dying; he, too, eventually succumbs to AIDS. Helen is an office worker in New York; after a long-term affair with her boss ends and she completely loses it at a company Christmas party, she becomes the office oddball, a subject of derision.

Next we meet the three members of a romantic trial--Nathan, his best-friend Josh, and his girlfriend (but soon-to-be Josh's wife) Susan. Susan journeys from ambitious young professional, to nouveau riche matron, to religious emigre; with each change in her world view, she changes her name as well. By the 1990s,  she has left Josh to move to Israel, where she begins to feel another change coming on.

The stories are connected--Margaret makes a brief appearance in Clifford's story, as Clifford and Helen do in Josh, Susan, and Nathan's story. But the connections feel forced--just as the rhyming form does. While Rykoff's book has gotten a lot of positive reviews, I would not recommend it--unless you have a true love for anapestic tetrameter (okay, I admitted it, I got that term from the New Yorker review).

Favorite passage:
"For what seemed like hours, while always subjective
Was now so unknowable, flimsy, selective,
In thrall to the twists of his brain's involutions
The cranial mist and synaptic occlusions
He'd had to contend with since he'd had his stroke,
Like trying to sculpt something solid from smoke.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller

The Dog Stars is this year's One Book One Broomfield choice--and it is a dark one. A flu pandemic has wiped out most of the population, and drought has destroyed much of the environment. Hig and Bangley live at the Erie, Colorado, airport. Hig hunts, gardens, and patrols the perimeter of their unofficial territory in his Cessna. Bangley is the muscle, killing anyone who intrudes in their territory regardless of age, gender, physical state, or intention--in fact, he doesn't take the time to ascertain their intentions. One of his mottoes is "Never negotiate." While Hig is clearly the more humane of the two--he tends to a group of Mennonites who survived the pandemic only to come down with a deadly disorder carried in the blood--but he has killed his share of intruders as well.

When Hig is flying his plane, he uses his radio as if someone were going to answer--and one day, he picks up bits of a transmission from Grand Junction. For three years, he thinks about trying to fly to Grand Junction--although he knows such a mission might end up with him stranded on the Western Slope--but only after does his beloved dog Jasper dies does he feel compelled to try to make another human connection.

On his journey, Hig not only makes new alliances and runs into new dangers, he also realizes that he cares deeply about Bangley and begins to worry about how he is doing back in Erie without help. Without revealing specifics of any more plot developments than I've already mentioned, I would simply say that the book ends on what to me seems like an ambiguously positive note.

Throughout the book, the reader is inside Hig's head--and Heller beautifully conveys how he thinks--combining complete sentences and elegiac reflections with sentence fragments and single words in rapid-fire responses to events around him. Things don't always make sense--just as our own thoughts often do not.  Dystopian novels aren't really my thing--and this book is certainly darker and more violent than other One Book one Broomfield choices--but I did appreciate Heller's writing and hits creation of a complex character who commands our sympathy as we recoil from some of his actions.

A listing of one Book One Broomfield events is available at

Favorite passages:
. . . smell is always the smell itself and memory, too, don't know why.

There is a pain you can't think your way out of. You can't talk it away. If there were someone to talk to. You can walk. One foot the other foot. Breathe in breathe out. Drink from the stream. Piss. Eat the venison strips. Leave his venison in the trail for the coyotes the jays. And. You can't metabolize the loss. It is in the cells of your face, your chest, behind the eyes, in the twists of your guy. Muscle sinew bone. It is all of you.

How you refill. Lying there. Something like happiness, just like water, pure and clear pouring in. So good you don't even welcome it, it runs through you in a bright stream, as if it has been there all along.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Sight Reading, by Daphne Kalotay

Sight Reading features a rather mundane plot. Would-be artist Hazel and composer/conductor Nicholas are married and have a little girl Jessie. Then Nicholas has an affair with a student at the Boston conservatory where he is on the faculty and leaves Hazel for Remy, a violinist. Ten years pass and Jessie, on the edge of the teen years, is causing concern for all three of her parents. Hazel is unable to sustain a relationship, convinced that the disorder that is causing her to lose pigmentation is driving men away. Remy has a brief affair with Nicholas's best friend Yoni. Ten years pass and Jessie is engaged, Hazel is happily remarried, and Remy and Nicholas are having problems individually and as a couple. Yoni dies.

Not only is the plot trite, the characters tend toward the disagreeable. Remy is perpetually dissatisfied but can't figure out why. Nicholas is completely unaware of any one else's feelings. And Hazel . . . Hazel is a self-pitying wimp. Twenty years after her divorce from Nicholas and some years into a happy marriage to Robert, she is upset when she learns Remy and Nicholas are having problems because if they break up, her pain and humiliation will have been for nothing. What? Could anything be more pathetic?

So, one might ask why I kept reading, and the answer is that I found the way Kalotay wrote about music and its creation to be both lovely and thought-provoking. If the novel had the complexity and resonance of the music she describes, it would have been much, much better!

Favorite passages:
Ideas [for musical compositions] presented themselves while he showered, while he dreamed, and he accepted them with gratitude, hearing melodies in the hiss of radiators and the dripping of faucets.

She took her violin from its case, tuned the strings, tightened her bow. Closing her eyes, she thought back to the opening bars. Her bow met the string, and soon she found herself among those mysteries she was still trying to understand, those questions still taking shape. Playing from memory always held this quality for her, as if inhabiting a nameless space whose light and shadows became gradually--with each playing--more clear to her. Already she sensed, this time, a leap forward in her comprehension, her playing no longer a matter of mere translation. The music had become a part of her, so that she felt, this time (though tears streaked her cheeks), its meaning.

She felt herself floating within time, the way she often did while playing, that suspension of time that is the peculiar alchemy of music. Just as Nicholas had said on that very first day, twenty years ago. Not just how fast or how slowly the music moves. It's about how fast and slow life moves.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

So Long, See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell

The audio version of this brief book is prefaced by a lengthy interview with the author. The interview definitely influenced how I interpreted the rather unusual structure of the book because in it, Maxwell indicated that much in the story parallels his own life. Thus, when the book's narrator refers to the frame that he put around the imaginative part of the story as a memoir, I believe that it is indeed a memoir even though the book itself is classified as fiction.

But let me explain. So Long, See You Tomorrow opens with a murder in the small town of Lincoln, Illinois (where William Maxwell spent his early years). It then drops back a few years to describe the early life of the narrator, a dreamy unathletic boy (again, like Maxwell), whose mother dies when he is young (again, like Maxwell--okay, I'll stop now). The narrator's father remarries a perfectly lovely young woman who is kind and loving to her husband's sons, but the boy still feels alienated from his family, missing his mother and sensing that his father does not understand or truly love him. When his father sells their family home and starts building a new home, the narrator hangs out there after school, walking the beams with a boy named Cletus Smith whom he does not know well. They become friends of a sort, hanging out in a setting that can only be their playground for a limited time.

Then the murder occurs--Cletus's father shoots their neighbor Wilson, his former best friend, and then kills himself. Cletus disappears from the narrator's life until the narrator's family moves to Chicago some years later. One day he sees Cletus in the hall at his high school, but they do not acknowledge each other. This occurrence haunts the narrator (okay, sorry, I'm going to do it again--as an identical event disturbed Maxwell) and he decides to try to exorcise the memory by more fully imagining the story of the Smiths  and the Wilsons. The tale he creates is a terribly sad one of women marrying the wrong men, friendship betrayed, children forgotten or used as pawns, financial ruin, and even abuse and neglect of the family dog. While the story holds together as a tragic dissolving of all the bonds that keep a person functioning within society's boundaries, it hardly seems to be an imagining that would help the narrator (or William Maxwell) free himself from the guilt of cutting Cletus in the high school corridor. Perhaps that is the point--there can be no redemption for an unreasonable guilt and one's imagination simply cannot answer the questions that plague you when you do not know what ultimately happens to someone you wronged. My own take is perhaps not what Maxwell had in mind--that the narrator's guilt is not just unreasonable but an exaggeration of his own significance in the larger story of Cletus's life and thus his attempt to assuage that guilt would ultimately fail because it, too, was conceived in egotism.

At any rate, I did feel the purpose behind the structure was not entirely clear, which leads me to an interesting point. In the interview that opened the audio presentation, Maxwell said he thought it was the author's moral obligation not to leave the reader with unanswered questions. Hmmm. I don't feel the same way about unanswered questions, perhaps because the author cannot know what questions we as readers have. If Maxwell thinks he answered all the questions in this book, then I believe he is providing evidence for my point. Furthermore, unanswered questions often cause us to reflect most keenly on what the work means to us.

Another interesting comment that Maxwell made in the interview is that he begins each book with a metaphor, and the characters and story emerge from there and from his life experience.  (He several times uses a metaphor of a tree in explaining his life story to the interviewer.) In So Long, See Your Tomorrow, the central metaphor seems to be the two boys playing on the scaffolding and beams at the half-built house, building a friendship in the air as they play on the incomplete foundation their families have provided to protect them.

Favorite passage:
Whether they are a part of home or home is a part of them is not a question children are prepared to answer. Having taken away the dog, take away the kitchen, the smell of something good in the oven for dinner. Also the smell of wash day, of wool drying on the wooden rack, of ashes, of soup simmering on the stove. Take away the patient old horse, waiting by the pasture fence. Take away the chores that kept him busy from the time he got home from school until he sat down to supper. Take away the early morning mist, the sound of crows quarreling in the treetops. . . . Take all this away and what have you done to him. In the face of a deprivation so great, what is the use of asking him to go on being the boy he was?

Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Husband's Secret, by Liane Moriarty

What would you do if you found a letter addressed to you with a note stating it is to be opened in the event of your husband's death? Would you open it, put it back where you found it, ask your husband about it? That is the dilemma facing Cecilia Fitzpatrick, multi-tasking mother of three, Tupperware saleswoman, and stalwart organizer and fundraiser of St. Angela's School in Sydney, Australia. When she mentions the letter to her husband John-Paul and he not only responds suspiciously but returns home from an international business trip days early, her resolve not to read the letter dissolves. The secret she learns throws her perfect life into emotional chaos.

But Cecilia's is not the only story told in The Husband's Secret. Tess O'Leary, a 30-something Melbourne resident, learns that her husband has a secret, too--he is in love with her cousin, best friend, and business partner Felicity. Tess reacts by taking her six-year-old son to stay with her mother in Sydney, where she enrolls him at St. Angela's School. There, she runs into the PE teacher Connor Whitby, whom she dated before she married Will, and begins to eye him with some interest.

Connor is also the focus of Rachel Crowley's attention. Rachel is the school secretary at St. Angela's, and she believes Connor murdered her daughter a quarter of a century ago. Her grief still feels fresh, and she tortures herself by thinking about the possible lives her daughter might have had had she not been killed. Rachel believes she has discovered new evidence of his guilt and is eagerly awaiting police action. Her grief is compounded by the fact that her daughter-in-law has gotten a job in New York, which will take her beloved grandchild away.

While Moriarty infuses humor into the story, she also builds a growing sense of dread. And, while the reader knows definitively that John-Paul's secret will be bad and, upon its revelation, something else terrible will happen, Moriarty still manages to surprise us with the twists the story takes. Cecilia and Rachel's stories in particular cause the reader to ponder the power of secrets, the nature of guilt, and the meaning of justice.

The book is not without problems. Occasionally, Moriarty's prose lapses into cliche, and her Berlin Wall metaphor is clunky. Tess's story is much lighter than those of Cecilia and Rachel--perhaps introducing a lighter tone is its purpose or perhaps it is intended to extend our thinking about secrets or our insight into the suspected murderer, Connor Whitby. Whatever its purpose, it felt out of place to me. The book also has an Epilogue that I found really irritating--it engages in something similar to Rachel's habit of imagining her daughter's adult life and tells the reader how things would have turned out if various events in the book hadn't occurred (and drops a couple more surprises on the reader). Again, I"m sure Moriarty is conveying a point about the multiple futures possible for everyone and the extent to which our lives are shaped by events we don't fully understand--but as a device, I disliked it.

These problems notwithstanding, I found myself listening to the book much more often than my normal "listening while walking" practice. It's definitely worth reading.

Favorite passage:
Marriage was a form of insanity, love hovering permanently on the edge of aggravation.

Friday, August 23, 2013

East of Eden, by John Steinbeck

East of Eden begins with a description of the Salinas Valley, first--in chronology and importance--of a number of disquisitions on varied topics that Steinbeck intersperses throughout the book. (Later, we will learn about the economics of prostitution in New England, law enforcement in the West, and the U.S. entry into World War I, among other matters.) Steinbeck also introduces the Hamilton family, headed by the charming and brilliant Samuel, who despite his many ideas cannot seem to make a decent living. Still, the Hamiltons' financial challenges don't prevent the family from growing large and being happy. We also learn that the narrator is the Hamilton's grandson.

With the setting set and a compelling character established, it is disconcerting to find ourselves carried off to New England, where the Trask family lives. The patriarch of the Trask family was injured while training to fight in the Civil War, but this does not stop him from presenting himself as a Civil War hero and military expert. He raises his two sons, Adam and Charles, by training them for military life (their mothers have died in rapid succession). Charles is a rough-and-tumble boy, while Adam is more cerebral--but their father decides Adam should go into the Army while Charles works the farm. Adam returns to the farm after a years in the military and time in jail, but he and Charles can co-exist for only a limited time. However, their father has died and left them wealthy (the source of the money is unclear but it was almost certainly gained nefariously), and Adam decides to set out for California with his new wife, Cathy Ames. Cathy showed up on their doorstep one night nearly beaten to death, and Adam falls immediately in love with her. While the reader knows that Cathy is a prostitute, beaten by her married lover, naive Adam has no idea what happened to her.

By the time they arrive in California, Cathy is pregnant and miserable. Adam buys a large spread in the Salinas Valley and sets about turning it into a garden for his beloved. He calls on Samuel Hamilton to help him find water, and the two strike up a friendship that also includes Adam's Chinese servant, Lee. Samuel and Lee both sense something inhuman in Cathy, but Adam remains besotted. Samuel--who in addition to being a douser and a well digger is something of a midwife--delivers Cathy's twin sons. Shortly thereafter, Cathy shoots Adam in the shoulder and heads to Salinas, where she becomes a prostitute and, eventually, a madam. For a year, Adam does not even name the twins, until Lee and Samuel insist that he pay some attention to the two children.

Samuel reads the story of Cain and Abel to Lee and Adam, but Adam rejects those names, choosing instead Aron and Caleb. The two boys grow up to be different in appearance and personality. Aron is fair and sweet, Caleb is dark and somewhat manipulative. As a pre-adolescent, Aron falls in love with Abra; as they move toward adulthood, Aron's goodness (he considers becoming a minister and even adopting a celibate lifestyle) cause Abra to question whether they are meant to be together. Meanwhile, Cal is all too aware that Adam loves Aron better and plans a gift that he hopes will win Adam's love. With the shadow of Cain and Abel hanging over the brothers, the reader knows only too well that the outcome will not be good.

I'm leaving out huge chunks of the book--Cathy's life as a Salinas prostitute and madam, the Hamilton children's struggles and triumphs, the philosophical conversations among Samuel, Adam, and Lee--and much more. The book exemplifies the term sprawling. But the sprawl is appropriate to the themes Steinbeck explores in East of Eden: good and evil, the quest to be loved, the struggle to be great, the the power of choice.

One quibble with the book is that it is almost entirely a story of men; Abra is the only female character who is at all two-dimensional. Cathy is a cardboard cutout of evil, and Samuel's wife Liza  is a stereotypical bossy wife. A 21st-century woman reading East of Eden can't help wishing for a greater female presence, but the book is a product of a male author writing in a specific time and place, and it is a masterpiece for all that.

Favorite passages:
If a story is not about the hearer, he won't listen. And I here make a rule: A great and lasting story is about everyone, or it will not last. The strange and foreign isn't interesting, only the deeply personal and familiar.

Maybe you'll come to know that every man in every generation is re-fired. Does a craftsman, even in his old age, lose his hunger to make a perfect cup--thin, strong, translucent? . . .  All impurities burned out and ready for a glorious flux, and for that, more fire. And then, either the slag heap, or perhaps what no one in the world ever quite gives up, perfection.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, by Anne Tyler

Between the effects of allergies and allergy medicine and a pretty heavy workload, I have been too tired to do much reading lately, but I thought a nice Anne Tyler book would give me a lift. Although the quirky characters that fill Tyler's books often make bad decisions or have bad things happen to them, they generally seem to find a way to rise above their misfortunes. In other words, the books usually end on a mildly happy/unbeat note.

Such is not the case in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Siblings Cody, Ezra, and Jenny Tull are quirky enough. Some might even find their mother Pearl, who raised them on her own when their father abandoned the family (she never openly admitted that he had left, describing him as being away on business), quirky, her more germane characteristic is being a rather awful mother. The three children's "quirks" are essentially responses to being inadequately loved/parented as children, and they are sad rather than entertaining. Even when the children are grown, the family cannot sit through a meal together, despite Ezra's desire to have them break bread together at his restaurant. Cody marries Ezra's fiance but, in spite of business success, can never really be happy; Ezra continues to live with their mother until she dies, struggling to make his eccentric restaurant work; and Jenny, who both marries and repents in haste, rarely eats. It's sad--and the ending provides no meaningful resolution.

It may be that, for me, this is one too many books recently featuring really bad mothers (coincidentally, I am listening to East of Eden, which, if you have forgotten, features a murdering mother who abandons her newborn twins to resume her career as a prostitute). Whatever the case, I didn't find Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant enjoyable or edifying.

Favorite passage:
He was not, in spite of his innocent face, an open sort of person, and rather than speak outright of Jenny's new breakability he kept smiling serenely at some point just beyond her. She took comfort from this. There was already too much openness in the world, she felt--everyone raging and weeping and rejoicing.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

"Breaking up with a Book"

I've written before about how hard it can be to give up on a book. I have found it grows a bit easier as I get older (that statement is perhaps belied by the fact that I still have certain books on my nightstand after repeated unsuccessful attempts to read them--Beloved anyone? Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel?).  Anyway, here's a  funny blog post on this very topic:

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Traps, by MacKenzie Bezos

Traps is the story of four women, each leading a somewhat constricted life that will change over the course of the four days in which the novel takes place. Dana is a veteran who now works in private security in the Los Angeles area; she cannot commit to her lovable boyfriend Ian, who is also a cancer patient. She fears that she is a person who will also do everything best alone. Dana's current assignment is guarding Jessica, an Academy Award-winning actress who is essentially house-bound because of her fear of the paparazzi. This fear is compounded by the fact that her father has several times betrayed her, selling her out for the money the tabloids will pay him if they get a good photo op. Nonetheless, when she finds out her father is in the hospital and his dog has been left alone at his house, she, Dana, and another guard head to Las Vegas to rescue the dog and assess her father's situation.

Meanwhile, 17-year-old Vivian is living in Las Vegas with her twin babies, dependent on occasional prostitution to make ends meet. Her journey begins when the exterminator tells her that the crawl space under her rental house has more spiders than he has ever seen and she and the babies need to get out of the house for awhile. At a diner on the outside Las Vegas, she finds a "help wanted" notice pinned to a bulletin board. She responds to the ad and gets the job helping Lynn, an older woman who operates a dog rescue operation. Lynn is a recovering alcoholic with one hand missing; her social circle seems to be limited to the dogs she cares for.

I don't want to say too much about the events that help the four women see themselves and their futures differently or reveal how the two pairs are eventually linked. Suffice it to say that I found the story uplifting--despite barely making it out of the first chapter, in which Dana is undergoing testing that involves subduing an attacking dog. In fact, there are a few too many dogs in the book--but I enjoyed it nonetheless. Bezos's writing style is not flashy--Geraldine Brooks's jacket blurb described it as having a "chiseled quality," an apt characterization. Traps is a book I'm happy to have read, and I look forward to reading more from this author (who happens to be married to the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos).

Favorite passage:
. . . everyone deserves to feel known for the things they choose to offer up themselves.

Valentines, by Ted Kooser

A self-described flirt, Ted Kooser for 20+ years sent out Valentine's poems to women that he knew and, in later years, to women who had given him their addresses at readings and book signings (his wife Kathleen did not mind, he reports). This slim book is a collection of those poems, which Kooser describes as "meant for the reader's fun." And the poems are fun. In the first he writes of keeping a valentine in his pocket, pulling it out to check whether the poem was "right" and hoping that when the recipient finds the valentine, it will still be warm from its time in his pocket.

He writes of hearts--paper hearts, celery and artichoke hearts, ancient heart-shaped maps, the leavings in a box of those Valentine "message hearts," a woman inventorying the candy at a store. He writes of leaving a valentine in the hayloft; of running into two men in an alley, who he imagines think he is looking for a Valentine bouquet in the trash; an ice skater who, after completing a jump, smiles back at "the woman she had been just a instant before"; and, in one of the collection's most touching poems, an elderly couple sharing a sandwich in a restaurant.

The poems are charmingly illustrated with pen and ink drawings meant by artist Robert Hanna to "reflect the aesthetic temper of Ted's writing space." All in all, reading Valentines is a most enjoyable experience.

Favorite passage:
From "Song of the Ironing Board"
. . .
I lean against the wall and breathe
the drifting smoke of memory,
the stained chemise pulled over
most scorched yet ever shining heart.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Tapestry of Fortunes, by Elizabeth Berg

Cecilia Ross, a middle-aged motivational speaker, has recently lost her best friend to cancer and decides rather precipitously to change her life. She sells her house and most of her belongings, moves into a house with three women she doesn't know, puts her career on hold, and begins volunteering at a hospice. When she receives a postcard from a long-lost love, she decides to take a road trip to visit him, and her roommates opt to come along. Two of the roommates are also hoping to connect with people from their pasts--physician Lise with her ex-husband and advice columnist Renie with a daughter she placed for adoption 18 years ago. The fourth roommate, Joni, decides to go along when she quits her job as sous chef at an upscale restaurant. Of course, the four have folksy adventures and eventual success with their missions, confirming the cliches that Cece spews in her motivational talks.

The first two Elizabeth Berg novels I ever read--Talk Before Sleep and Range of Motion--were beautifully written and emotionally rewarding explorations of how people deal with illness and death. Lately, her books have disappointed, and Tapestry of Fortunes falls into the disappointing category. The characters are one-dimensional, the plot is utterly ridiculous, and the writing tends toward the platitudinous (making one character a motivational speaker and another an advice columnist almost guarantees the writing will be trite). I may have to give up on Elizabeth Berg.

Favorite passage: None

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen

I am a major fan of Pride and Prejudice; I reread it every few years, not to mention repeated viewings of the BBC version starring Colin Firth. I also like Emma and Persuasion and have read each twice. All three of these Austen works have strong female protagonists and interesting male counterpoints; each satirizes upper class British society while concluding, somewhat ironically (but satisfyingly for the romantic reader) with a happy marriage.

After listening to three women writers discussing Austen's work, I decided I should give Mansfield Park a second chance and . . .  this book is tedious! I can't even bear to describe the plot. Suffice it to say that heroine Fanny Price is priggish and "insipid" (quoting Austen's mother), and her beloved cousin and eventual husband Edmund is insufferably moralistic (yet falls for a shallow flirt). While Austen suggests that Fanny is a better person than her upper class cousins and their social circle because she spent her early childhood in poverty,  poverty does not seem to be improving the majority of Fanny's siblings and Fanny herself, after a visit to her poverty-stricken family, cannot wait to return to the genteel life at Mansfield Park.

Reading Pride and Prejudice for the umpteenth time would have been more rewarding.

Favorite Passage:

. . . but Mr. Yates, without discernment to catch Sir Thomas's meaning, or diffidence or delicacy, or discretion enough to allow him to lead the discourse while he mingled among the others with the least obtrusiveness himself . . .   [I like the alliteration, but the careless use of pronouns referring to both Mr. Yates and Sir Thomas is annoying.}

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The House Girl, by Tara Conklin

As this novel opens, we meet Josephine, the title character, an enslaved teenager who works for Lu Anne Bell, a sickly woman who fancies herself an artist. Among Josephine's many jobs is "fixing" Lu Anne's paintings. Josephine has tried to run away previously, but she was about to give birth to a child, the product of serial rape by her "master," Lu Anne's husband. Thus, she was forced to return to the Bell plantation to give birth to a child born dead. Four years later, on the day in 1852 when we meet her, she is planning to run again.

The narration then shifts to Lina Sparrow, a young associate at a Manhattan law firm circa 2004. She is finishing up a brief, only to have it dropped in the trash by her supervising partner, who announces that the case has been settled. He tells her that he has an exciting new case for her, a lawsuit seeking reparations for slavery. Lina's job is to find an appealing lead plaintiff.  By coincidence (there are many in this book), Lina's father, a noted artist, takes her to an exhibit of the work of Lu Anne Bell, which a leading art critic has recently announced were really painted by her slave Josephine. Lina decides that Josephine's descendants would be good plaintiffs and begins to research the family. Meanwhile, her father is about to mount a show of new work featuring paintings of Lina's mother, who died when she was 4.

The perspective continues to shift between Josephine and Lina, with Lina's sections including (phony) historical documents she uncovers as she delves into Josephine's life. These documents include letters from the daughter of a conductor on the Underground Railroad and a narrative written by a slave doctor (a physician who patched up captured runaways so they could be resold). The book's ending brings new information and a new direction for Lina and tragedy for Josephine.

The House Girl is jam-packed with interesting topics and issues--slavery, the Underground Railroad, what happened to runaways who were captured, reparations, art and how the authorship of works can be established, the strictures of being a wife and mother, coming of age (in a rather delayed fashion) . . . and on and on. If Conklin had focused more narrowly--perhaps eliminating Lina's character altogether and using a variety of perspectives to tell Josephine's story--the book might have been more effective. As it is, I found the narrative too scattered, the plot rife with too many coincidences, and Lina's story ridiculous.

Favorite passage:
It is not much that I need for happiness.  . . . I will strive in my own way for the abolitionist cause. I will assist others as I can on the Railroad, and this is really all that I ask.  To be a good wife to Jack, to work alongside him, to find comfort where I may, to give comfort to others as I am able. Is it too much to wish for such a life? Is it too little?

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Humanity Project, by Jean Thompson

The first characters we meet in The Humanity Project are Sean, a construction worker who has hit hard financial times, and his teenage son Conner. The two are about to lose their house, and Sean is distracting himself by looking for women on line, an activity that will prove disastrous. Next we meet Linnea, a teenager who is arguing with her stepsister Megan in the bathroom of their high school. They, too, are about to be beset with disaster--a school shooting in which Megan will be killed and Linnea will be emotionally scarred to the point that her mother can no longer handle her. Her mother sends Linnea to California to live with her father Art, a middle-aged part-time teacher who has no idea how to parent a child he does not know. Linnea and Conner meet and become friends in just one of many coincidences that mark The Humanity Project.

The book takes its name from a nonprofit foundation started by a wealthy widow, Mrs. Foster. Mrs. Foster employs Conner as a handy man and hires her former visiting nurse Christie (who just happens to be Art and Linnea's neighbor) to head the foundation. The foundation's goal is to spend Mrs. Foster's money in ways that will help poor people and heighten humanity in general. One of its first major projects is hosting a conference on "Investing in Our Better Selves," which will explore the connection between economics and spirituality.

Despite the book's title, the foundation is a relatively small part of the many intersecting stories in the novel, most of which feature people whose humanity has been undermined either by the terrible circumstances they have faced (Connor, Sean, and Linnea) or by their own poor choices (Art, Christie, and Sean). Connor and Sean's story is especially well-told; while Linnea's story should be moving, it somehow fails to grip the reader--and perhaps it also failed to grip Thompson, as she seems to let Linnea slip away until the last chapter, something of an epilogue in which Linnea describes what happened to a number of characters.

Although The Humanity Project has gotten a number of positive reviews, I found it to be seriously flawed. The theme of how circumstance and decision-making can make us less human is worth exploring, Thompson's novel is too cluttered with extraneous characters and subplots to do the theme justice. In addition, the ending is weak--it's a bit too neat, and the device of the retrospective epilogue is trite (and ineffective).

Favorite passage: None

Friday, July 12, 2013

Being Esther, by Miriam Karmel

Esther Lustig is an eighty-something widow who lives in Chicago. Her daughter wants her to move into an assisted living facility, but she is resisting as hard as she can. She does not want to go to the "land of the living dead"--even though she knows she's not as sharp, physically or mentally, as she once was.

Esther has lived a conventional life--she married a nice Jewish boy, moved to the suburbs, had two children, and moved back to a city apartment when the children were grown. She hangs out with a childhood friend she reconnected with following her husband's death. She loves her granddaughter Sophie, but is not sold on Sophie's know-it-all boyfriend.

Not a lot happens in Being Esther, but many of the scenes have humorous aspects (Esther rams her grocery cart into an obnoxious woman shouting into a cell phone at the supermarket).  Perhaps because I am fairly old and have a mother in her eighties, this didn't feel like fresh territory, but judging by the reader reviews on Amazon, other readers found it insightful.

Favorite passage:
Now, waiting for her friend to call, Esther looks up from the obituaries and sees, as if for the first time, the vitamins, the sugar bowl, the ruffled edging on the blue quilted placemat. Such homely objects. Yet each has a sense of prupose. The longer she stares t them, the more they mock her with their specificity. They know what they're about. They aren't sitting around, conjuring the few taglines that might explain the meaning of their existence.

. . . lately more and more people do just that [talk down to Esther], as if age has shrouded her in stupidity.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The View from Penthouse B, by Elinor Lipman

I'm a fan of Elinor Lipman's novels--their humor, "everydayness," and the optimism that washes through them. The View from Penthouse B has all of those traits along with some timely plot twists. Margot and Gwen-Laura are two sisters somewhat down on their luck. Margot's fertility specialist former husband is in jail for nefarious sexual activity with patients and she lost all the money from her divorce settlement by investing with Bernie Madoff. She sits around her apartment trying to get discovered as a writer by blogging about being broke. After being suddenly widowed, Gwen-Laura moves in to help Margot with the mortgage and to commiserate. Although it's been two years since her husband Edwin died, Gwen-Laura barely leaves the house.

Then the action picks up--they take in a boarder Margot met while he was picketing Lehman Brothers, his former employer. Anthony is much younger than the sisters (in his 20s to their 50s), makes fantastic cupcakes, and offers life advice while doing chin-ups in the doorway. Charles, Margot's ex-husband, gets out on parole and moves into the same building; before long, he is sharing meals with them and introducing them to the son he fathered with a patient, Chaz, a hat design student at the Fashion Institute. Gwen-Laura, meanwhile, abandons her grief support group and tries her hand at Internet dating.

Lipman's themes are family, moving on, and forgiveness, and, while the subplot involving Margot and Charles tests credulity, Gwen-Laura's story is heart-warming. There are a few too many characters who make brief appearances and disappear--Anthony's sister, a beautiful nanny who loses her job because she's sleeping with her charge's daddy; Margot and Gwen's younger sister Betsy; members of the grief group; etc. The View from Penthouse B isn't my favorite Lipman, but it's still good fun.

I do have a quibble with the audio version, which I listened to--the reader, Mia Barron, sounded too young, closer to the age of Anthony than Margot and Gwen.