Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion

Don Tillman describes himself as socially inept, but his behavior--an aversion to touching other people, an inability to interpret facial expressions or appreciate nonliteral forms of expression, a highly routinized life--suggest he may have Asperger's. He has only two friends--psychology professor and philanderer Gene and Gene's long-suffering wife Claudia. He is so distanced from his family that he has to come out to them as straight. Nonetheless, he is a genetics professor at a prestigious university in Melbourne.

At 39, Don fears he may never find a life partner, but he decides to try, launching the Wife Project. The Wife Project involves a long questionnaire that screens out nearly every woman alive. When Gene sends a graduate student to Don to settle a bet, Don mistakenly takes Rosie for an applicant for the Wife Project. While she is wildly unsuitable (according to the questionnaire), Don becomes involved in the Father Project, Rosie's attempt to find out who her biological father is.  Both the Wife and Father Projects are happily resolved in predictable fashion.

Graeme Simsion does a good job of presenting how someone like Don might react in various situations. But I felt uncomfortable throughout the entire book because Don's social problems are played for laughs. While the humor is not cruel--Simsion wants us to like and appreciate Don--I just don't see people on the autism spectrum as subjects of humor (Ethnic humor no longer acceptable? Let's make fun of people with disabilities). Furthermore, the idea that Don could transform himself by deciding to do so and watching a few movies seems highly unrealistic.

Most of the reviews of The Rosie Project that I've seen are positive;  recognizing that I'm in the minority, I still would not recommend this book.

Monday, February 24, 2014

I Promise Not to Suffer, by Gail D. Storey

It was interesting to read I Promise Not to Suffer so soon after rereading Plain and Simple. Both are stories of middle-aged people stepping away from their everyday lives to find meaning in new pursuits. In I Promise Not to Suffer, the searcher is Gail Storey's husband Porter, who had been taking on progressively more difficult outdoor challenges over several years and, when his job as a hospice physician became untenable because of management decisions, thought the time was perfect to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Gail decides to make the trip with him.

Gail's memoir covers the extensive preparation they did for the trip--Porter designed their own ultra-light equipment--as well as some of the family challenges they were leaving behind. But at the heart of the book are her descriptions of their time on the trail--sometimes rewarding, but nearly always grueling, with the ever-present possibility of dying on the trail. About 900 miles in, Gail's body is simply too battered to continue, and she comes off the trail. Porter continues, with Gail acting as a support person from their home in Houston and from a rental car in Oregon. Then Gail's mother, with whom she has had a somewhat troubled relationship, becomes terminally ill. Gail travels to the East Coast to stay with her mother during her final days. At the same time, Porter has entered the final dangerous sections of the PCT. Somehow Gail is able to manage her stress and find comfort in the changes nature has wrought.

For someone whose mother often referred to her as a "house plant" in childhood, I would not choose the PCT as a way of finding myself, opening myself to nature. Nor did Storey's descriptions cause me to yearn for the experience--quite the contrary. While I respected both her courage in taking on the trail and the restraint she shows in describing the extreme experiences, Storey's account didn't move me in the way Plain and Simple did.

Of note: One of our book group members, Kendall, knows Gail Storey. Several years ago, we read Gail's first novel, The Lord's Motel, and she came to the meeting when we discussed it. She was delightful--but I never would have pegged her as someone who would hike the PCT!

Favorite passages:
. . . it was the word "pass" that began to glow in my interior lexicon. More ominous than the "switchback" of the previous 750 miles, a pass was our only route between thrill and fear.

I sat there reeling with stillness. Inside, I felt like the river, a wider, deeper version of myself. My skin tingled from the bracing cold, my eyes opened at the brightness of everything around me. Nature, much more powerful than I, let me live.

I had learned so much from the natural world about the deep silence of love. If my mother--silent about so many things--let me be with her when she died, might that mean she'd come to trust the woman I was now?

Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier

I am surprised I had never read Rebecca before, as I did go through a gothic romance period in my younger days. And, boy, is it gothic--there is horror, there is dread, and there is a mysterious dark setting. The nameless narrator is a young British woman who tells the story through a "flashback"--we know bad things happen because she and her husband are living as nomads on the Continent, their lovely home in England destroyed. As her reminisces begin, she is working as a companion to an older wealthy American vacationing in Monte Carlo. When her patron becomes ill, she begins spending time with Maxim de Winter, a desperately sorrowful Englishman whose wife was drowned months earlier near his estate, Manderley. When the young woman's patron decides to return to the United States, de Winter proposes to our naive heroine and, after a short honeymoon in Italy, they return to Manderley.

Our heroine has gained the name Mrs. de Winter (still no first name, never a first name), but she soon realizes that to the denizens of Manderley and other acquaintances of Maxim, that name will always belong to her predecessor, Rebecca. Rebecca was clearly more beautiful, more sociable, more talented, wittier than the new Mrs. de Winter, who skulks around the house avoiding the servants, especially the frighteningly severe housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers. Mrs. Danvers came to Manderley with Rebecca and was slavishly devoted to her. Her antipathy towards the new Mrs. de Winter causes a number of problems.

Without revealing too much for the six other people in the world who have not read Rebecca, let's just say that questions arise around Rebecca's death, leading to an investigation and the eventual destruction of Manderley.

While I appreciated how skilfully du Maurier developed the atmosphere of dread necessary to the genre, I found myself annoyed throughout by the utter stupidity of the narrator. Time after time, she makes bad decisions that would have been obvious mistakes to a person with a brain (even a naive person completely out of her depth); she often creates entire nightmarish story lines based on one overheard line, an intercepted look, or even a gesture, sending herself into a tizzy if not an outright faint at the imagined possibilities. In addition, many of the plot developments were predictable.  There was one twist near the end that I had not foreseen, but it was not enough to rescue Rebecca for me.

Favorite passage:
I had build up false pictures in my mind and sat before them. I had never had the courage to demand the truth.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Fear Nothing, by Lisa Gardner

D.D. Warren is injured returning to a murder scene on her own late at night. Still off work and in great pain weeks after the injury, she agrees to see a pain therapist, Dr. Adeline Glen. Ironically, Glen herself has a rare genetic condition that prevents her from feeling any pain, an ailment that causes her to be extremely cautious in the way she lives her life. She is the daughter of a notorious serial killer who stripped skin from his victims and stored it in Mason jars; her sister Shana Day is also a convicted serial killer whom she visits monthly. And, coincidentally, the cases D.D.'s squad is working also involve strips of skin being cut from the victims postmortem.

The theme of this book (to the extent that mysteries have themes) is nature vs. nurture--Adeline was raised by a loving adoptive father, Shana spent her youth in a series of foster homes. The exploration of this theme is not very satisfying and the descriptions of the many crimes that occur in the course of the investigation are a bit too graphic. I was listening to a recorded version of the book and I occasionally felt slightly nauseous during skin-stripping activities.

Definitely not the best in the D.D. Warren series, but if you like your mysteries gory, Fear Nothing may be right up your alley.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Girl with Glasses: My Optic History, by Marissa Walsh

For Valentine's Day, Audible offered several free downloads from which subscribers could choose. I picked Girl with Glasses because I am one (though an old girl transitioning after cataract surgery to being a girl with glasses part-time) and because the reviews said the brief memoir was funny. Sorry to say I didn't laugh once while listening to the book. I guess I never felt sufficiently put-upon for having to wear glasses and prefer not to fall prey to stereotypes about us or about our supposed cute-girl rivals. Many of the vignettes that Walsh relates reminded me of pointless stories about my younger days that my children greet with a perplexed look that suggests they're still waiting for the punchline. I certainly don't imagine that those stories are interesting enough to be published!

Monday, February 17, 2014

After I'm Gone, by Laura Lippman

Felix Brewer's illegal gambling operation provides a good living for his family--wife Bambi and daughters Linda, Rachel, and Michelle. Then, when he is convicted of racketeering charges, he disappears, leaving his family and his mistress Julie behind. Julie, to whom he has signed over a coffee shop (his one legitimate business), does well financially. Bambi and her girls, to whom he has apparently left nothing, struggle financially. Many in Bambi's circle assume that either Felix abandoned his family in every sense or Julie somehow stole the money intended for Bambi and her daughters. Then, ten years after Felix's disappearance, Julie disappears, too, sparking more rumors, this time that she has gone to be with Felix. Fifteen years later, Julie's body is found in a nearby park, but her murder is never solved. Fast forward to 2012--Roberto "Sandy" Sanchez, widower,  retired police officer, and failed restaurateur, is now a consultant to the Baltimore Police Department, working on cold cases. Based on a picture in the file, he chooses Julie's case to investigate.

Sandy's investigation provides the narrative glue for the story, which bounces back and forth in time, between 1959 (when Felix and Bambi, a Bryn Mawr dropout, met) and 2012. The narrator also changes, with Sandy and all the women left behind by Felix given their own voices. Through the chapters narrated by Bambi, Linda, Rachel, Michelle, and Julie, we see how they dealt with his disappearance--and continued dealing with it nearly 40 years later. While all three of the Brewer daughters struggle at some point in their growing up, they all manage to elicit the reader's sympathy. The two adult women once again illustrate how hard it is to understand sexual/romantic attraction--why does Bambi put up with Felix's infidelities before his disappearance (yes, I know it was a different era and women like her didn't have many options)? Why is Julie still waiting for Felix ten years later and why is she still fascinated with Bambi? These are larger mysteries to me than who killed Julie.

n fact, while I enjoyed following Sandy's investigation, the mystery seemed less central to the book than the examination of the Brewer family dynamics--the secrets they kept from each other, the sacrifices they made for each other. The family's friendship with Bert and Lorraine, Felix's old buddy/lawyer and his wife, is also fascinating, as Bambi and Lorraine work hard to maintain the friendship, even when changes in their economic status pose challenges (and they judge each others' tastes and behaviors).

The mystery was slightly marred by Lippman's red herrings that so obviously pointed to one or another suspect that you felt pretty confident that person would not end up being the murderer. Fans of the Tess Monaghan series will enjoy a brief appearance by Tess's husband Crow and her daughter Scout. I'm curious whether Sandy may become a recurring character--I'd definitely read another book featuring the character, but I hope we'll get a Tess book first!

All in all, an enjoyable read with more depth than your average mystery.

Favorite passage:
Did you know the more we tell a story, the more degraded it becomes? Factually, I mean. It’s like taking a beloved but fragile object out of a box and turning it over in your hands. You damage it every time. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Valley of Amazement, by Amy Tan

Violet Minturn is an American girl growing up in early 20th-century Shanghai. Her home is the only first class courtesan house owned by an American madam--her mother Lulu. Violet is a bit of a brat--she is furious because she feels neglected and unloved by her mother who is too busy with her business to pay much attention to Violent, and she takes out that fury on the "flowers" (the courtesans). She spies on them with their customers and generally makes herself a pest.

Then, as Violet is about to enter her teen years, her life is thrown into chaos. She discovers that she is half Chinese (there have been hints about this before, but she thought they were the taunts of people jealous of her) and has a brother. Lulu decides to pack up and head for San Francisco to reunite with her son. She entrusts part of the preparations for the trip to one of her longstanding customers, and she ends up on the boat while Violet is sold to a courtesan house as a "Virgin Courtesan." By coincidence, a courtesan her mother fired years ago is in the same house, and she takes Violet under her wing. A lengthy section is taken up with this woman, Magic Gourd, providing advice to Violet about how to be a successful courtesan.

And Violet does become a successful courtesan. Her personal life is less successful as she stumbles through a series of relationships that all--even a love match with a wealthy American--end badly. She makes a series of terrible decisions that seem to parallel some decisions in her mother's early life. Then, about two-thirds of the way through the lengthy book, Tan takes us back to the late 1800s, to her mother's childhood in San Francisco, and we see how similar the two women's lives truly are. Lulu was a headstrong girl who felt neglected by her parents and made bad decisions about men that eventually led her to her life in Shanghai. Near the end of the book, we meet Violet's daughter Flora and see how--was it inevitable?--her life is replicating some of the same experiences in the same generation.

Amy Tan returns to the theme of mother-daughter relationships that began her career in The Joy Luck Club, but here the generations are reversed--the mother grew up in the United States, the daughter in China.  Despite the length of The Valley of Amazement, the treatment of the relationship seems shallow--essentially, Tan seems to be saying "No matter how much you resent your mother, you are doomed to repeat her mistakes." For me, one of the challenges of reading this book was not judging the characters--especially their parenting decisions--by 21st-century American standards. Many of their decisions strained credulity, but I had to remember that transportation was difficult then, women's choices were severely constricted, they were living in a different culture, there was a world war going on for part of the time, etc., etc.

Tan obviously did an incredible amount of research for the book and, if you are interested in the world of the courtesan in early 20th-century Shanghai, this is the book for you. For someone only mildly curious about that world, there is perhaps too much detail. Not unexpectedly perhaps, that detail includes many descriptions of sexual experiences ranging from the hideously violent to the mildly unpleasant to (occasionally) the ecstatic. (I am quite positive I have never read a book that used the word pudenda so frequently.)

I finished the book, but I wouldn't recommend it unless you do want to learn about courtesans and sexual politics in Shanghai 100 years ago. If you haven't read Tan's earlier works, I'd definitely recommend picking up one of them rather than The Valley of Amazement.

Favorite passage:
“I was returning with myself whole and unbroken—limbs, mind, and spirit. I had discarded pride, that useless burden of self-importance” 

(My favorite passage was actually a Whitman quote that Violet sometimes repeated: Rebel much. Obey little.)

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Plain and Simple: A Woman's Journey to the Amish, by Sue Bender

I first read this book more than 20 years ago, at a very different time in my life. I was 40, getting divorced, working really hard, and raising two sons. Sue Bender's quest to find a simpler, more focused, and calmer way of living resonated deeply with me. Although I didn't go to stay with the Amish or even change my life after reading the book, I appreciated Bender's hard-won acceptance that fragility and strength, order and chaos, freedom and limits, independence and communality all exist simultaneously and that we find the best balance we can.

I decided to reread the book this weekend after completing a brutal slog through a project that was financially rewarding but an intellectual and physical grind. I again enjoyed reading of how Bender first became fascinated with traditional Amish quilts in her thirties, returning day after day to a shop where they were on display to soak them in. A few years later, she became interested in the simple faceless dolls that Amish mothers make for their children. Finally, 15 years after her interest began, she left her Berkeley home to spend several weeks with an Amish family in Iowa. Although there was much about the simple ordered life of the Amish she admired, she was also disturbed by the severe limitations on the Amish women's lives (and by their diet). When she returned to Berkeley, she was uncomfortable in her own life, though she knew the Amish lifestyle was not for her. Two years later, she spent time with another Amish family in Ohio--a much larger family in which the women had found ways to express their individuality within the confines of their culture (they also ate much healthier food). Again, when she returned to Berkeley, she longed to be able to recreate some aspects of the communality she experienced and was frustrated until she finally began to write about her journey.

I do have to admit that, this time around, I found it somewhat surprising that she spent five years agonizing as she wrote and rewrote this rather brief book. I don't mean to sound condescending, although I'm sure I do, but at this phase in my life, the lessons learned feel, in essence, commonsensical. They are elegantly presented, with the metaphor of the Amish nine-patch quilt used to advantage, and I respect the deep self-examination from which they grew. But they don't resonate quite as much.

Favorite passage:
Miracles come after a lot of hard work.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Ten Years in the Tub, by Nick Hornby

Anyone who reads book review blogs will love this book by British novelist Nick Hornby. Subtitled A Decade of Soaking in Great Books, it is a collection of columns he wrote for an arts journal called The Believer (if you have heard of this journal, you are way ahead of me, but interestingly they do not allow negative writing to enter their pages; ergo, if Hornby doesn't like a book, he has to talk about it obliquely, without mentioning author or title--but I'm getting ahead of myself). Hornby's column is titled "Stuff I've Been Reading," and it is as informal as that name might suggest. He starts each column with a list of the books he bought that month, as well as a list of what he read. Then he proceeds to talk about those books. He is funny and often insightful, but not in a "Oh, I'm a postmodernist who's going to confuse you with my brilliance" way. In fact, despite being a successful writer and obviously very knowledgeable about all manner of literary stuff, he doesn't write like a critic at all; rather, he writes like a reader, and that's what makes the book so great.

Hornby's reading is diverse--he reads literary fiction and mysteries, collections of letters by eminent personages and books about quitting smoking, poetry, history, biography, philosophy, and a bit of science here and there.  When, half way through the decade, he discovers YA literature, it's both fun and funny to read about his delight. Whatever genre you partake of, he's probably read and talked about some examples. There are bound to be titles familiar to you and discussions that will convince you to pick up a book you would never have glanced twice at without Hornby. And Hornby will give you permission to quit reading books you don't like (not that you need permission, but I always feel slightly better when a respected author backs me up).

One quibble with the book is that the humor becomes a little wearing when you're reading column after column; I doubt it has that effect when you are reading a column once a month.  Even with humor that wears thin (and a snipe at book group members who complain about not caring about any of the characters--ouch! that stings), I wish I'd written this book!

Favorite passages

. . . all the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal.

I am not particularly interested in language. Or rather, I am interested in what languages can do for me, and I spend many hours each day trying to ensure that my prose is as simple as it can possible be. But I do not wish to produce prose that draws attention to itself, rather than the world it describes . . .

Stupidity is, despite all appearances to the contrary, a complicated state of mind.

And many more.