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.