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.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Started Early, Took My Dog, by Kate Atkinson

I gave up on Atkinson's Jackson Brodie series because the second and third books were so dark it was painful to finish them.  I so enjoyed her recent Life After Life, however, that I decided to go back and give Jackson another try. And Started Early, Took My Dog, despite involving numerous deaths (murders, accidents, suicides), child and animal abuse, dementia, family dysfunction, and buying and illegal adoption of children, is somehow less bleak.

Describing the plot of Started Early is difficult--there are numerous interlinked plots and characters. Jackson, now retired as both a cop and a PI, is nonetheless back in his home turf trying to find the biological parents of a woman, Hope McMaster, whose adoptive family moved to New Zealand when she was a toddler. As he begins to unravel the mystery of her origins, he stirs up a hornet's nest involving a 30-year-old case--the murder of a prostitute. Police officers and social workers seem to be implicated in the mystery of Hope's early life.

One of those police officers is Tracy Waterhouse, retired and working security at a mall. On the day Jackson arrives in Leeds, she spontaneously offers to buy a little girl being treated badly by yet another prostitute, Kelly Cross. Tracy finds herself on the run from a variety of mysterious pursuers, including Jackson, who quickly identifies her as a potential source of information on Hope's case.

There are numerous other characters and plot lines--Jackson rescues a dog; Tracy's former partner Barry deteriorates as he deals with the fall-out from the old case as well as the aftereffects of an accident that killed his grandson and left his daughter in a vegetative state; and an aging actress with dementia  stumbles into events like Queen Elizabeth playing Forrest Gump.

While Hope's story is largely resolved, the book ends with other questions unanswered--for example, who is the child Tracy bought from Kelly (it appears she is not Kelly's child)? Who killed Kelly Cross?  These  unsolved mysteries are a bit frustrating, but overall I found Started Early an entertaining mystery.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann

TransAtlantic begins with three fictionalized accounts of Atlantic crossings, beginning with the first transatlantic flight, made by British aviators Alcock and Brown in 1929, a flight that "took the war out of the machine." The second is Frederick Douglass's trip to Ireland and England in 1845, in which he raised money for the abolition cause (and avoided being sent back into slavery). The last is Senator George Mitchell's nearly endless series of trips across the pond as he sought to broker what came to be known as the Good Friday Accords, signed in 1998.

The remainder of the book follows four generations of Irish-American women whose lives intersect with the three "true" stories. Lily Duggan is a maid in the household where Frederick Douglass first stays in Ireland. Inspired by and mildly infatuated with Douglass, she leaves service to follow Douglass to Cork; his failure even to recognize her drives her to emigrate to the United States, where she takes on a variety of jobs before becoming a Civil War nurse. When her son is killed, she marries the ice man and has a new family, including her daughter Emily. Late in her life, she and Emily go to hear Douglas speak in St. Louis.

Emily becomes a writer. She covers the Alcock/Brown story, and her daughter Lottie takes photographs of the two. Ten years later they travel to Ireland to interview Brown, who no longer flies (Alcock has long since died in a plane crash). While in Ireland, Lottie meets and marries an Irishman. They have a daughter named Hannah, whose son Tomas who is killed at 19 in "The Troubles." Lottie, who meets Senator Mitchell on the tennis courts, finds healing for her grief once the Accords are signed. For Hannah,  such is not the case, and her life is awash in pain and financial problems. A letter dating to the 1929 transAtlantic flight may hold the key to her financial future . . . or it may not.

As a huge fan of McCann's Let the Great World Spin, I had high hopes for TransAtlantic, hopes that it did not quite live up to. The first of the "true" stories is the most compelling, perhaps because it is the least well-known and thus takes most readily to being fictionalized. The Mitchell story is the strangest, perhaps--in similar fashion--because it involves a "character" who is well-known to newspaper readers of the past 20 years. While the stories of the Duggan women are interesting, they occasionally drag--Hannah's story that ends the book is especially slow-paced. How all these "true" stories and the stories of the women fit together--other than in the obvious plot intersections--is unclear. Although I feel sure it was not McCann's intent, there were some moments when I felt that the theme might be "Men do important things, and women suffer."

However, McCann's writing is often quite beautiful and makes TransAtlantic a worthwhile read even if its parts don't seem to add up to any larger whole. Although Michiko Kakutani described McCann as having "an annoying habit here of embroidering his prose," I enjoy the needlework. One technique that McCann uses often that might be annoying if employed by a lesser writer is listing; while it sounds odd, the technique works to layer detail upon detail in building a scene or idea. To wit: "The ancient monks used reeds to paint the gospels. Cowhide and wolfskin and the pelt of elk to keep out the weather. They ground down bone, mixed it with grass and soil and berries and plants. Bird quills. Leather binding. Stone huts. Bronze bells. A series of walls for defense. Round towers for lookout. The fires they lit were small. The books they wrote were taken then across the lough, across the sea, to Scotland."  I love the way he piles up these elements to let the reader put them together--and I'll read his next book for more of that kind of writing.

Favorite passages:. . . it was immediately understood that they both needed a clean slate. The obliteration of memory. The creation of a new moment, raw, dynamic, warless. It was as if they wanted to take their older bodies and put their younger hearts inside. 

There is always room for at least two truths.

What was a life anyway? An accumulation of small shelves of incident. Stacked at odd angles to each other. The long blades of an ice saw cutting sparks into a block of cold. Sharpening the blades, seating them, slotting them into handles. Leaning down to make the cut. A brief leap of ember in the air.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Patron Saint of Liars, by Ann Patchett

Rose Clinton is a young married woman in Marina del Rey, California. Her husband Thomas is nice enough, but she doesn't love him and spends her days driving the roads of southern California in a futile effort to escape the tightness in her chest. When she discovers she is pregnant, she decides to run away, heading for St. Elizabeth's, a home for unwed mothers near Habit, Kentucky. Rose immediately bonds with elderly Sister Evangeline, who is in charge of the kitchen at St. Elizabeth's but isn't much of a cook. As her due date approaches, Rose decides to keep her baby and marries the handyman, Son, because she believes her marriage will convince the nuns to let her keep the baby and give her a reason to stay at St. Elizabeth's.   (And, yes, she is still married to Thomas.) She stays 15 years, tending to Sister Evangeline, cooking for the girls and nuns at St. Elizabeth's, and largely ignoring her husband and daughter Cecelia. Despite the fact that the first section of the book is told from Rose's perspective, she remains an enigma.

The second section of the book is told from Son's perspective. Son is 45 when he marries Rose, but we learn how he came to St. Elizabeth's as a young man, following a career in the Army that ended with an accident in basic training and a romance that ended tragically. He immediately loves Rose's daughter Cecilia  and commits to the role of loving father. While he loves Rose, he doesn't understand her and realizes he may someday lose her; he can face this loss, but the idea of losing Cecilia. The last section of the book is the teenage Cecilia's, and we struggle with her as she tries to figure out why her mother is so distant. The return of Thomas Clinton sends Rose running again, causing pain to Thomas, Son, Cecilia, and Sister Evangeline.

Rose is not a particularly sympathetic character because we understand so little of her motivation or her feelings and she hurts Son and Cecilia, much more engaging and understandable characters who carry the book. The Patron Saint of Liars is Ann Patchett's first novel, and it lacks the depth and complexity  of her later works. This was my second reading of the book, and I liked it better the first time I read it--Rose's penchant for making bad decisions that cause suffering for others and for running away seemed less mysterious and more despicable upon this reading. And Patchett's writing, while certainly skilled, entertains but does not yet transport the reader. Still, I think The Patron Saint of Liars is worth reading.

Favorite passage:
People tell me things you wouldn't believe. It's like there's a sign over my head: CONFIDE HERE.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, by Jonathan Gottschall

I can't remember if it was my son or I who saw a precis of The Storytelling Animal, but we exchanged some email about the ideas described in the digest, and I decided to read the book (actually, I listened to it, which may have been a mistake in this instance--but I'm not going to read the print book to make sure). Unlike many of the reviewers who have raved about the book, I found it disappointing. Jonathan Gottschall draws on a variety of disciplines from literature, religion, and psychology to neurology, biology, and virtual reality, as well as  his own experience (perhaps more than he ought) to support his thesis. Essentially that thesis is that people alone among living creatures are immersed in story--telling, listening to, reading, watching, and living stories--because storytelling is an adaptive behavior that helps individuals rehearse social situations in which they may find themselves in the future. He also argues that stories encourage ethical behavior, that they influence both history and individual lives, and that, despite waning interest in reading fiction, story is in no danger of dying.

Some of the research Gottschall cites is interesting, and I enjoyed his description of memoirs (he calls them "truthy" rather than truth) and the ways in which we distort our own life stories as we construct narratives about ourselves. Similarly, the discussion of virtual reality as the future of storytelling was interesting, though I have no idea of whether he is correct. Overall, however,  his primary thesis was inadequately supported and his constant reassertion of the importance of story rapidly became tedious (luckily, the book is not too long).

Favorite passages:
Like Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence, authors trick readers into doing most of the imaginative work. Reading is often seen as a passive act: We lie back and let writers pipe joy into our minds. But this is wrong. When we experience a story, our minds are churning, working hard.

. . . a healthy mind tells itself flattering lies.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

What Is Novel Conversations Reading?

Here's our roster of books for the rest of 2013:

July: The Patron Saint of Liars, by Ann Patchett
August:  Calling Invisible Women, by Jeanne Ray (who is Ann Patchett’s mother)
September: One Book One Broomfield book (not yet announced)
October: The Night Circus, by Erin Morganstern
November:  Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver

December:  Benediction, by Kent Haruf

Looks like some good reading ahead. 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout

Of the three Burgess siblings--older brother Jim and younger twins Bob and Susan--only Susan still lives in their rather sad hometown of Shirley Falls, Maine. Jim is a high-powered criminal attorney in Manhattan, who became famous by successfully defending a soul singer accused of killing his girlfriend. He is married to a wealthy woman, and they live in  beautiful brownstone in Park Slope. Bob, also an attorney, couldn't take the stress of the courtroom and now does appeals work, also in New York City. Bob lives with the guilt of having accidentally killed their father when he was four years old; that guilt allows him to accept the verbal abuse that Jim heaps on him in the guise of brotherly kidding. Susan works in an optical shop and lives with her 19-year-old son Zach, who has never been "quite right."

When Susan calls to say that Zach threw a pig's head into the mosque of Shirley Falls growing Somali community, Bob rushes to Maine to help her, while Jim and his wife head off on a vacation with the managing partner in Jim's firm. Bob, however, does not handle matters in Shirley Falls well, and Jim becomes increasingly angry as he tracks events from his hotel room. As Zach's case progresses, Jim's rage grows while Bob, Susan, and Zach begin fighting their way through to a more positive place. Perspective shifts among Bob, Susan, Jim, Jim's wife Helen, Bob's ex-wife Pam, and a leader in the Somali community, Abdikarim Ahmed.

The Burgess Boys does have one oddity that I cannot figure out. In a prologue, a woman and her mother mend their relationship by talking about the Burgess kids. Then, when they read about the pig's head incident in the paper, the younger woman decides to write the Burgesses' story--and the book begins. What did Strout feel this prologue added to the book? I expected to return to these two "characters" in an epilogue, but they simply disappear. Wondering . . .

Despite this oddity, I enjoyed The Burgess Boys--it's not as innovative as Olive Kittredge, but it is a complicated and moving look at how members of a family experience their shared lives differently, how they hurt and heal each other--and it manages to end on a hopeful note. As is always the case with Strout, she conveys a sense of place beautifully--her descriptions make Shirley Falls and specific locations in New York feel familiar. While the immigration theme could be more fully developed, it nonetheless adds dimension to the story, which might otherwise have been too narrowly focused within the Burgess family.

Favorite passages:
The colors of Central Park were quietly fall-like: the grass a faded green and the red oaks bronzed, the lindens changing to gentle yellow, the sugar maples losing their orangey leave, one floating here, another falling there, but the sky as very blue and the air warm enough that the windows of the Boathouse were still open at this late afternoon hour, the striped awnings extending over the water.

Pam replied that she was too old to worry about being cool, but in fact she did worry about it, and that's one reason it was always nice to see Bobby, who was so uncool as to inhabit--in Pam's mind--his own private condominium of coolness.

She had entered (most likely long ago) some territory of danger where her life would rattle with unraveling; her husband would leave her, her son would leave, hope itself would leave, casting her so far outside the boundaries of ordinary life that she roamed the land of the unspeakably lonely whose presence society could not abide.