Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Next Time You See Me, by Holly Goddard Jones

Emily is an eighth-grader in Roma, Kentucky. She has no friends and spends the hours after school wandering around the woods near her house. One day, she discovers a woman's body--but she decides not to tell anyone. Having this secret makes her feel special, something she doesn't feel in any other part of her life. 

Her teacher, Susanna Mitchell, doesn't feel special either. She is having trouble with her students and their parents, particularly bright but cocky Christopher Sheldon and his condescending mother, and is unhappy in her marriage to the high school band director. She is also worried that she hasn't heard from her sister Ronnie for more than a week. Ronnie is known as a party girl, so Susanna's husband Dale assumes she has just taken off with her latest conquest. Despite his argument, Susanna reports Ronnie to the police and is shocked to learn that the town's one detective is the baseball star she had a crush on in high school (but wouldn't date because he was African American and her alcoholic father was a racist). The detective, Tony, has problems of his own--he pops Darvocet to deal with the severe pain from the back injury that ended his baseball career.

Wyatt is a middle-aged factory worker talked into a night out drinking by younger (and manipulative) coworkers. Drunk and left to pick up the tab for the entire group from the plant, Wyatt is helped out by Ronnie, who pays part of the tab and gives him a ride home from the bar, Nancy's. Days later he has a heart attack and becomes involved with Sarah, a nurse he also met at Nancy's the night he got drunk and met Ronnie.

The Next Time You See Me is a mystery with very little mystery involved--readers know before the characters in the book that Ronnie is dead and Wyatt is her likely killer. If that weren't enough reason to dislike the book, virtually every character is unhappy if not miserable. Yet the characters are so well developed I found myself drawn into their problems, frustrations, and secrets. And I thought Jones did a fine job of capturing the class distinctions, thwarted dreams, and racial and gender prejudices of a small Southern town. The Next Time You See Me is by no means great literature, but I found it an enjoyable read/listen.

Favorite passage:
She was dressed in a costume of seriousness.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The City and the City, by China Mieville

Beszel and Ul Qoma are two city-states that inhabit the same space.  The same street may have different names in the two cities, and the pedestrians and drivers in each city must avoid their counterparts in the other city while "unseeing" them.  Citizens in one city must step over homeless people sleeping on the sidewalk or couples making love on the ground, again while "unseeing" them. The process of unseeing involves making distinctions between people based on the colors they wear, the way they carry themselves while walking, and other such subtleties. A person who crosses from one city to another without going through the proper channels (crossing through the official border in Copula Hall), who willfully sees what he/she should not be seeing--an offense known as Breach--will be immediately taken up into a third city that somehow exists between the two cities, also known as Breach.

Astoundingly, there may be yet another city somewhere in the interstitial spaces. The existence of this possibly mythical city, Orciny, is at the heart of the mystery that provides the narrative structure for The City and the City. A woman is found dead in Beszel; she is soon identified as a Canadian archeology student, part of a team excavating a site in Ul Qoma. She is also know to be a believer in Orciny. Inspector Tyador Borlu quickly realizes that she was killed in Ul Qoma, and, believing that Breach must have occurred, he petitions for the case to be taken over by Breach. A powerful government official makes sure that his petition is denied, however. Because the murder occurred in Ul Qoma, their police are tasked with solving the crime, and Inspector Borlu is sent across the border to assist. Borlu and his new partner, Qussim Dhatt, are soon investigating the disappearance of another student, interviewing unifs (supporters of unification) and nats (radical nationalists) and wondering what role Orciny plays in the case. Without saying enough to ruin the book for anyone who wants to read it, I will say that one of the characters ends up in Breach, so we get to learn more about this mysterious force and how it operates.

Mieville is known as a fantasy/science fiction writer, and The City and the City has fantastical elements. The "grosstopically" connected cities are beautifully imagined, providing a canvas on which Mieville can explore such themes (as identified by my son Kevin) as "tenuous cultural coexistences, being wilfully ignorant of one's neighbors, the weird arbitrariness of cultural differences." In creating The City and the City, however, he melded fantasy with the genre of noir crime fiction; interviews with Mieville suggest a variety of reasons for the choice, including a penchant for playing with different forms, a belief that the two genres are both types of dream fiction (he describes noir fiction as "dream fiction masquerading as a logic puzzle"), and a desire to write a book his Mum would have loved. Unfortunately for me, the mystery elements don't work as well as the fantasy elements (this may be because I've read a lot of crime fiction and not so much fantasy): the plot drags and the characters are flat.

I doubt that I will read any more Mieville (again quoting Kevin, who has read three other Mieville books and found them "dizzyingly imaginative, but so much so that he [Mieville] gets lost in the clouds").  Still, I'm glad I read this one, and I would recommend it to anyone who doesn't normally read fantasy novels but would like to dabble in a unique imagined world.

Favorite passage:
It may or may not have been Beszel, that we built, back then, while others may have been building Ul Qoma on the same bones. Perhaps there was one thing back then that later schismed on the ruins, or perhaps our ancestral Beszel had not yet met and standoffishly entwined with its neighbour. I am not a student of the Cleavage, but if I were I still would not know.

(Again in an interview, Mieville points out that Cleavage, the term used to describe the way the two cities came to be co-located, can mean either a splitting or a joining--and no one knows which applies in this case.)

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Wise Men, by Stuart Nadler

Hilly Wise is 17 when his father Arthur, a one-time ambulance chaser, wins a huge air crash liability case, giving the family immense wealth and propelling himself into the role of celebrity attorney specializing in the airline industry. With the winnings from the case, Arthur and his legal partner Robert buy adjoining ocean-front properties on Cape Cod. Along with the house, the Wises inherit the African-American caretaker, Lem Dawson. Arthur, a truly obnoxious character, treats Lem horribly, but Hilly attempts to befriend both Lem and his lovely teenage niece, Savannah. To deflect his father's questions about his flirtation with Savannah, Hilly blurts out that he saw Lem reading pilfered copies of his father's legal papers. Arthur immediately calls the police and has Lem arrested; Lem is murdered in jail while awaiting trial.

Guilt over Lem's death and something of an obsession with his feelings for Savannah shape the direction of Hilly's life. He rejects his father's money and becomes a reporter specializing in stories related to race. All the time he is reporting, he is also searching for Savannah. He eventually finds her in Iowa and, while she is married and he has a live-in girlfriend, they find themselves drawn to each other as they help a runaway teenager and deal with violence directed against Savannah because of her father's gambling debts. However, when Arthur calls Hilly to tell him his girlfriend is pregnant, Hilly leaves Savannah in Iowa and returns to Cape Cod.

In the third section of the book, Hilly is in his 70s; since returning from Iowa, he has lived in the house on Cape Cod, not working, but instead giving away his father's money to good causes. Now widowed, he has four adult daughters.  While his marriage was happy, he still thinks about Savannah and feels guilt about Lem. After Arthur is severely injured, ironically, in  a plane crash and his law partner Robert dies of a heart attack, Hilly and Savannah once again meet, leading to exposure of secrets Arthur has kept from Hilly for more than 50 years--and one of the secrets is quite surprising.

Wise Men would seem to be about thwarted love across racial lines and father-son relationships. But I didn't find that the story gave me any particular insights into either of these themes. Hilly comes across as a rather weak individual, while his father is a boor and Savannah is not well-drawn enough for the reader to understand why Hilly is so obsessed with her (it seems to be more about her as an idea than her as a person). Finally--while I appreciate a good surprise ending--this twist made me feel like everything that came before was just a distraction to set us up for the shock.

Some of the reviews I read suggested this is a "Great American Novel," but I disagree. In fact, I can't recommend Wise Men.

Favorite passage:
Cancer took her but she was gone long before that. Chemotherapy is what kills people sick with a malignant tumor. The person left afterward is not really the person, just the skin and bones. Part of the soul is shed at some point, along with the hair.

Monday, April 22, 2013

180 More, selected and with an introduction by Billy Collins

For Billy Collins, former poet laureate of the United States, this is his second collection of 180 poems; the number is intended to provide one poem for each day of the school year, in hopes that a poem a day might be read over the school announcements. To that end, Collins has opted for "clear, contemporary" poems by such poets as Naomi Shihab Nye, Robert Bly, Sharon Olds, Kay Ryan, and many others.

Collins's "Introduction" is interesting. It opens with discussion of a debate between poets Dana Gioia and August Kleinzahler over the merits of Garrison Keillor's collection Good Poems. Collins sides with Gioia in supporting accessible poems--those, like an accessible building, that are "easy to enter." He provides examples of accessible poems and those that are inaccessible. Collins explains his preference for accessible poems as being about "the pleasure that is to be derived from a poem's power to convey a reader from one place to another, its capacity for imaginative travel." He asks: "If a poem has no clear starting place, how can it go anywhere?" He goes on to describe the kinds of poems to which he is partial. It's an interesting discussion that can stimulate readers to think about what criteria they apply in deciding whether they are partial to a poem.

Favorite passages:
From "By Her Own Hand," by Alice Fulton
My last sound was like the small release
of strings and frets you sense
when a guitarist changes chords.
Enough to let you know the music's made by hand.

From "Why It Often Rains in the Movies," by Lawrence Raab
Because so much consequential thinking
happens in the rain. A steady mist
to recall departures, a bitter downpour
for betrayal. As if the first thing
a man wants to do when he learns his wife
is sleeping with his best friend, and has been
for years, the very first thing
is not to make a drink and drink it,
and make another, but to walk outside
into bad weather

From "From Blossoms," by Li-Young Lee
From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches. . . .

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

From "Publication Date," by Franz Wright
One of the few pleasures of writing
is the thought of one's book in the hands of a kind-hearted
intelligent person somewhere. I can't remember what the others are right now.

Life After Life, by Jill McCorkle

Life After Life centers around the residents of a retirement home; hospice worker Joanna; single mom C.J., who cuts hair and does manicures at the home; and Abby, a young girl who finds friends among the residents of the retirement home. Along with chapters from the perspective of the many characters, McCorkle develops the story through Joanna's notes on the patients who have died in her care, plus a recounting of the last thoughts of each of those patients.

The characters have a variety of commonplace problems, though the older folks seem to approach them in more creative ways. Sadie helps people realize their dreams by creating collage images in which people's images appear in places they wished to visit or doing things they wanted to try. Retired lawyer Rachel moves from New York to North Carolina to find out about the life of her married lover, long-since-dead but still adored. Stanley, another retired attorney, decides to act like a crass buffoon so his son will break ties and remake a life that badly needs rethinking. Meanwhile, the younger people pursue dead-end relationships and make decisions with bad results for themselves and others. The book's ending is ambiguous--perhaps realistic in that real people's lives aren't neatly tied up with bows, but somewhat unsatisfying nonetheless.

The stories of the elderly characters and of Joanna's work as a hospice worker are, perhaps unexpectedly, life-affirming. On the other hand, the stories of C.J. and Abby's parents are disturbing in that despicable or misguided adults make decisions with profoundly negative effects, particularly for the children. The darkness is only alleviated by the fact that Abby's mother and her lover are such hideous people that they don't seem real. The book's ending is ambiguous--perhaps realistic in that real people's lives aren't neatly tied up with bows, but somewhat unsatisfying nonetheless. Overall, Ican't recommend the book even though I liked some parts of it.

Favorite passages:
People marry to change class, geography, luck, but when they stretch out at the end fo the day, it's still the same heavy hearts thudding along at their centers.

Sometimes you just have to believe that love is love and accept that it manifests in many different ways. Accept the great fortune of seeing it at all.

A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the Time Being opens with Japanese teenager Nao Yasutani sitting in a French maid cafe in Tokyo, writing in a copy of Proust that has had the original pages cut out and new ones inserted to create a diary. Nao is alternately perky, philosophical, kinky, and apologetic, but then suggests she is going to devote the diary to the story of her remarkable great-grandmother Jiko, a Buddhist nun.

Readers then meet the second narrator, a writer named Ruth. Ruth spent several years caring for her mother, who had Alzheimer's. Since her mother's death, she has tried to write a memoir of the period, but her work is badly stalled and she's feeling alienated from her husband Oliver (something of a know-it-all environmental activist) and trapped on the Canadian island where they live. Then she finds a plastic bag containing a Hello Kitty lunchbox. In the lunchbox are Nao's diary, an antique men's watch, a packet of letters written in Japanese that Ruth cannot read, and another diary written in French. Ruth begins reading Nao's diary, and Nao's comments on suicide cause her to become concerned. However, she doesn't rush through the diary, instead reading it at the pace at which it was written. She also begins to research Nao and her family members and has the letters and French diary translated. Both of these items, it turns out, were written by Nao's great-uncle, Haruki. Haruki (or Haruki1, as she refers to him, since her father, an unemployed and suicidal programming whiz, is also named Haruki) was a 19-year-old philosophy student in Tokyo when he was drafted into the military in WWII and became a member of the Special Attack forces (kamikaze pilots). All of these documents are intercut with Ruth's story, as she struggles to find out what happened to Nao, her parents, and her great-grandmother and to address the problems in her own life. The story takes a turn toward what I would call magical realism, when pages disappear from Nao's diary and reappear after Ruth dreams that she intervenes in the Yasutani family's lives; Ozeki, however, introduces quantum physics as a possible explanation for these odd events.

The story of Nao's family is compelling, and the parallels between the dilemmas faced by the two Harukis are well drawn. On the other hand, I had a number of issues with the book. I didn't care greatly about the problems of Ruth and Oliver, and I was irritated by the magical realism aspects of the story. Furthermore, Ozeki seemed to be "kitchen-sinking" the narrative, throwing in so many different ideas and issues that the book becomes a jumble. I'm still glad I read it for the story of Nao's family and for Ozeki's writing, but I wish it had been a little less diffuse.

Favorite passages:
Print is predictable and impersonal, conveying information in a mechanical transaction with the reader's eye. Handwriting, by contrast, resists the eye, reveals its meaning slowly, and is as intimate as skin.

Two months have passed since our great send-off at Meiji Shrine, that ceremony of sad puppets in the cold and bitter rain. Dear Mother, I fear Monsieur Ruskin was wrong. The sky does weep, and there is nothing false about pathetic fallacy.

Still, what's the point in beating yourself up when other people will do it for you?

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Bossypants, by Tina Fey

Bossypants is a series of humorous essays about Tina Fey's childhood and her career--from her days as working the front desk at the Evanston YMCA to her triumph playing Sarah Palin during the 2008 campaign. Tina Fey reveals herself to be a shy and somewhat insecure person who is loyal to her friends--a person we might all enjoy knowing. She doesn't hit it out of the park with every essay--some of them are indeed funny, but others try a little too hard to be funny (at least for my taste). Still, it's a good light airport read.

Favorite passage:
Luxury cruises were designed to make something unbearable--a two-week transatlantic crossing--seem bearable. There's no need to do it now. There are planes. You wouldn't take a vacation where you ride on a stagecoach for two months but there's all-you-can-eat shrimp.

. . . don't waste your energy trying to change opinions. Go "Over! Under! Through!" and opinions will change organically when you're the boss. Or they won't. Who cares?

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Border Crossing, by Pat Barker

Tom Seymour is a psychologist whose marriage is failing,  at least in part because they cannot conceive a child. One day, he and his wife Lauren are out for a walk when they see a young man plunge into the river. Tom goes in after him, rescuing the man. Soon, he learns that he had a previous connection to the attempted suicide, Danny Miller (now known as Ian Wilkinson). Tom was the psychologist who evaluated then 10-year-old Danny when he was arrested for the murder of an elderly neighbor. Tom's evaluation led to Danny's trial and conviction. 

Danny is now out of prison but struggling--with his inability to remember exactly what happened, his anger about Tom's role in his imprisonment, and the challenges of creating a life after prison. Having arranged the meeting with Tom, Danny begs Tom to help him work through his issues. Tom agrees, insisting that he should be free to talk with any of the people who interacted with Danny while he was in prison. Through these conversations and his sessions with Danny, Tom begins to construct a picture not only of the crime but of Danny's habitual "border crossing"--Danny projects a vulnerability and charm that causes teachers, social workers, parole officers, and perhaps psychologists to cross the boundary that should exist between offender and professional. With Tom's marriage over, will he lose his career and perhaps even his life by letting Danny cross that border with him, or will he help Danny build a new life, if that is even possible for young murderers? Those are the questions that create psychological suspense in this rather brief novel. 

In Border Crossing, Pat Barker raises some interesting questions and creates genuine suspense. The audible version is well-read by Simon Preble. The book's flaw is that Tom seems to be something of an idiot--he knows how Danny works people, so why does he put himself in jeopardy? Does he think he can help Danny live a "normal life"? Does he feel guilty about his role in Danny's conviction or about the creepy childhood incident in which he and a friend almost killed a younger child? No matter what the reason, his insight into Danny's pathology ought to be reason enough to take some precautions in his dealing with the young parolee. 

San Miguel, by T.C. Boyle

San Miguel is one of the Channel Islands off the southern California coast. According to the fictionalized stories of two real families presented in T.C. Boyle's novel, life there in the 1880s and 1930s was harsh, isolated, and precarious to the health of its residents. The first section of the book is told from the perspective of Marantha, a consumptive woman whose husband, a Civil War veteran, has convinced her that a move to the island will be good for her health. He is so persuasive that she allows him to invest the money she inherited from her first husband in a sheep "ranch" on the island. In reality, however, the living conditions, the wet and windy climate, and the isolation take a tool on her both physically and emotionally (of course, the fact that her husband sleeps with the maid/cook doesn't help either). While it is hard not to empathize with her situation, she has a rather spoiled, whiny persona that is hard to like (the reader on the audio version of the book perhaps may have exacerbated that problem).

In the second section of the book, the focus is on Marantha's teen-age daughter Edith, who wants desperately to escape the island and her stepfather's heavy-handed management of the household. Edith dreams of being an actress and uses her acting skills and beauty to manipulate men, hoping one of them will help her run away. Ultimately, she succeeds and her story ends as she leaves the island.

The third section of the book, set in the 1930s, features Elise, who has recently married Herbie, another war veteran, this time of the Great War. Elise is in her late 30s and never thought she would marry; she is also an Easterner with no previous experience in the West. Yet she takes to life on the island; even when she has two daughters, she adapts and thrives. Her husband, on the other hand, has serious mental health issues. His behavior suggests bipolar disorder, and Elise mentions that he had shell shock after the war, something she clearly does not understand.  His mental health issues and gun collection strongly suggest something bad is going to happen--but who will be hurt provides some suspense.

That suspense is badly needed, as San Miguel is a rather slow and dare I say dull book. Marantha is sick, goes to live on the island, and is unhappy. Edith is forced to live on the island and is unhappy. Elise goes to live on the island and likes it fine. Ho hum.

T. C. Boyle has a sharp wit and is a keen observer of contemporary society. This effort at historical fiction provides no evidence of those strengths.

Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon

I am just back from a week's vacation, during which I read quite a bit, so will have several new posts over the next couple of days. I finished Telegraph Avenue on the trip--I actually started it on a trip in December, picked it up on a trip in February, and finally returned to it in April. Since I spent no time reading the book between trips, you might guess, correctly, that I didn't love it. On the other hand, I had no trouble remembering the characters or what was happening to them each time I picked it up after a two-month break.

So who were these characters? The story revolves around two intertwined Oakland/Berkeley, California, families, one African-American, one Anglo. Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe are partners in Brokeland Records, a used vinyl store specializing in jazz that has both geographically and socially taken over the space of a barber shop in a mostly African American neighborhood. Their business is threatened by a megastore development being planned by a former NFL player, who isn't above twisting arms and greasing palms of city leaders to get his project approved. Archy's and Nat's wives, the very pregnant Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe, are also business partners--they are midwives, whose business is also threatened by loss of hospital privileges and a possible lawsuit. Meanwhile, Nat and Aviva's nerdy 15-year-old son Julius, who is just realizing he is gay, is enamored of a another boy, Titus Joyner, who it turns out is Archy's illegitimate son who Gwen knows nothing about. As if this weren't enough, Archy's dad, a star of 1970s blaxploitation films from whom Archy is estranged, is on the run from a variety of people with axes to grind. And there are more subplots and minor characters too numerous to describe.

Chabon's themes are important to me--what it means to be family, how people of different races can relate as friends, what a depressed community needs to flourish and who should get to decide, how popular culture reflects bigger ideas in society. His writing is often wonderfully over the top. But then he can also be too extreme. There are just too many characters and plot lines in Telegraph Avenue, and the writing sometimes  goes too far as well. One section is made up of one long--verrry long--sentence; while some reviewers have cited this mega-sentence as indicative of Chabon's skill, I see it more as a sympton of his inability to rein himself in.

I can't give Telegraph Avenue a glowing review, but I do  respect what Chabon has tried to do.

Favorite passages:
A white boy rode flatfoot on a skateboard, towed along, hand to shoulder, by a black boy pedaling a brakeless fixed-gear bike. Dark August morning, deep in the Flatlands. Hiss of tires. Granular unraveling of skateboard wheels against asphalt. Summertime Berkeley giving off her old-lady smell, nine different styles of jasmine and a squirt of he-cat.

He fought the armchair, resisting its invitation to conform his frame to its armature of grief. Grief was itself a kind of chair, wide and forgiving, that might enfold you softly in its wings and then devour you, keep you like a pocketful of loose change.

The merchandise was not the thing, and neither, for that matter, was the nostalgia. It was all about the neighborhood, that space where common sorrow could be drowned in common passion as the talk grew ever more scholarly and wild.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Benediction, by Kent Haruf

For readers of Kent Haruf's Plainsong and Eventide, returning to the town of Holt, Colorado, feels like coming home--though there is less character cross-over here than in the previous two books (we do get a brief update on the McPheron brothers). The central character in Benediction, is "Dad" Lewis, who is dying from cancer. Although he is devoted to his wife Mary, he hasn't always been the greatest father, devoting too much time and energy to his hardware store and failing to accept his gay son. Daughter Lorraine has returned to Holt from Denver to help her mother care for Dad. As Dad gradually grows weaker, he struggles to accept the mistakes he has made.

As with Haruf's earlier books, other characters' stories are also woven into the narrative. Dad and Mary's next door neighbor Berta May is caring for her granddaughter Alice, whose mother recently died of cancer. Alice provides a focal point for the women in the story, most particularly Lorraine, whose teenager daughter was killed in a car accident some 15 years ago, and Alene Johnson, a retired school teacher who never married or had children because the one man she had ever loved was an already-married school principal. Another thread in the story has to do with the pastor of the Community Church, a man named Lyle, who has been sent to Holt because he got into some trouble at his church in Denver. His wife and teenage son are struggling to adjust to the small town, and their efforts are not made easier by Lyle's preaching in a vein that his congregants are unused to; the sections about the minister's family quickly became my favorites.

Haruf has a spare but elegant style that makes Holt and its inhabitants seem real--both ordinary and extraordinary. In his quiet way, he explores death, coming to terms with the choices we have made in life, what it means to be a parent, and how love (of a romantic partner, a parent or child, even a job) shapes our lives. Because the characters in Benediction are not quite as compelling as those in Plainsong and Eventide,  the book is, for me, not quite up to the standard of those two works. That said, I still enjoyed it greatly.

Favorite passages:
He stood in front of houses in the shadows of trees and looked in through the windows opened to the summer nights, watching people. The little dramas, the routine moments. People moving about in the rooms, people eating and getting up from the table and crossing in the flickering blue light of television and at last turning out of the darkened rooms . . . the precious ordinary.

She became part of the history of the town, like wallpaper in the old houses--the aging lonely isolated woman, the unmarried schoolteacher living out her days among other people's children, a woman who'd had a brief moment of excitement and romance a long time ago and afterward had retreated and lived quietly and made no more disturbance.