Sunday, August 31, 2014

Divergent, by Veronica Roth

My sister suggested that, as a political science major, I would be interested in the dystopian young adult novel Divergent, so I decided to give it a whirl. Since I assume anyone who is in the least interested in this book has already read it, I'm not going to bother with a plot summary and just make a few comments instead.

--I wish authors of dystopian novels would explain what happened to create the havoc and destruction that preceded the establishment of the post-apocalyptic society. Readers need the context to evaluate the situation in which the characters find themselves (IMHO).

--I found it interesting that the five factions were not formed because people who had the various characteristics were perceived as bringing value to the society but because people who lacked those characteristics were blamed for the ills that befell it. Unfortunately, it didn't really make sense that having just one value could be the solution to a society's problems--who would actually believe that? Furthermore, Roth did not explain why the boundaries between the factions were so impenetrable. There did not seem to be a logic to the system--it was just created for story-telling purposes (and I understand this is a story, but a story with internal logic would be better).  And why were those who had strength in more than one area called divergent?  Wouldn't they be convergent?

--It was interesting that the group chosen to wield governmental power was the abnegation (selfless) group--perhaps a commentary on the absence of that quality among our current leaders (but not necessarily a good choice for the polity).  The choice may also reflect the author's Christian beliefs, as may the choice of the erudite (intellectual class) as the evil-doers of the novel. While I saw a relevant message in the erudite manipulating the dauntless, I rebel at the notion that the educated are the ones a society should fear most.

--I really hate when a book is so obviously setting up a sequel (or two sequels in the case of the currently popular trilogies).

So did I hate Divergent? No, but I won't bother reading the subsequent books in the trilogy. I don't really care what happens to the society or, for that matter, to the main characters Tris and Four. I continue to be disturbed by the dystopic trend in YA novels--I guess they give young readers a chance to follow the exploits of heroes their own age, but at the same time they seem to pretty consistently present young people as victims of the societal structures that emerge following major ruptures in the social/environmental/governmental fabric. When I expressed this concern about the Hunger Games, only one other member of Novel Conversations agreed with me (and it might be said that others scoffed at the view as naive). Nonetheless, I hope a new trend for YA readers emerges soon.

Favorite passages:
"Welcome to the day we honor the democratic philosophy of our ancestors, which tells us that every man has a right to choose his own way in the world." Or, it occurs to me, one of five predetermined ways.

His absence will haunt their hallways, and he will be a space they can't fill. And then time will pass and the hole will be gone . . .

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Andrew's Brain, by E.L. Doctorow

Just today, E.L. Doctorow was awarded the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. I am thinking, however, that Andrew's Brain was not a big factor in his winning the award. Although the narration is sometimes third person and sometimes first, the book is apparently presented as a conversation between Andrew, a middle-aged brain scientist and his therapist, who may or may not be a government psychiatrist at a facility to which Andrew may or may not have been committed (I know there's a lot of uncertainty in this sentence, but that's how it was for me).

Andrew's life has provided plenty of material for him to relate to a therapist: he accidentally killed his first child by feeding the baby the wrong prescription (the pharmacist's mistake), his career has never really taken off, his second wife was killed in the 9/11 attacks, he has given his second child to his first wife to raise because he feels unable to care for her after her mother's death, etc. At the same time, his story has almost slapstick elements:  His second wife's parents were little people, which the author plays for laughs, albeit briefly. A longer section near the end of the book is devoted to the fact that George W. Bush was his college roommate; when the two meet by chance, Bush offers him a White House job that allows Doctorow to poke fun at Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney.

For me, the book just did not add up to anything, and the attempts at humor were tired and out of place. To make matters worse, I listened to the audio version, which was read by the author himself in what my son described as a "mopey" voice. Not recommended.

Favorite passage:
How can I think about my brain when it's my brain doing the thinking? So is this brain pretending to be me thinking about it?

Lucky Us, by Amy Bloom

The luck of the central character of Amy Bloom's latest novel, set in the 1940s, is mostly bad--though the serial abandonments she experiences at the hands of her loved ones probably don't truly qualify as luck. Eva is the illegitimate daughter of a married man, whose wife has recently died. Her mother decides to drive to his place to "see what might be in it for us." Determining there is nothing in it for her, the mother drives off, leaving Eva with father Edgar and half-sister Iris.

This is the start of a series of unlikely adventures in which teenage Eva generally plays a supporting role: She and Iris head for Hollywood so Iris can become a star; after a promising start, Iris's career is sabotaged by Hedda Hopper and another young actress with whom she had a romantic fling. Edgar, Iris, and Eva decide to move on to New York, along with Iris's make-up artist Francisco, where Edgar (formerly a college professor) and Iris pass themselves off as a butler and governess for a wealthy Italian family. Iris falls in love with the cook, Reenie. She reports Reenie's German-American husband Gus as a spy (he is not, but we learn of his travails, first in an internment camp and then in Germany, where he was "repatriated") and kidnaps an orphan to satisfy Reenie's baby-hunger. When Reenie is killed and Iris is injured in a fire, Iris leaves for specialized treatment in London . . . and doesn't come back. Once again, Eva is left behind, this time with a young boy to raise. Soon, Eva is also caring for her terminally ill father, who it turns out was not who he claimed to be. And on and on. There is some good luck in the people Eva meets along the way, but most of these relationships come and go. This makes the ending somewhat discordant for me, as it is extremely upbeat, with a lovely description of a photograph of the family that Eva has cobbled together.

To be honest, I don't quite know what to make of Lucky Us. It is, to some extent, a story of rising above one's circumstances, of persevering--yet the redemption comes so late that it felt inauthentic to me. I enjoyed Gus's story, but it seemed somewhat peripheral for much of the book. I love that the chapter titles are all the titles of songs of the era and the character of Clara, an African American jazz singer (who happens to have vitiligo) who becomes romantically involved with Edgar, is interesting and endearing--but she not only arrives late but leaves early. I guess I'll have to go with a "thumbs sideways" assessment.

Favorite passage:
He wanted to lick off her makeup, to kiss the perfect, bare Clara underneath. Clara thought that it would be good if he did; it would be cool water on her blistered heart if he did.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Fictitious Dishes, by Dinah Fried

Fictitious Dishes is an interesting little book that grew out of a design class project and became something of an obsession for the author. Always interested in the role food plays in novels, Fried has selected passages from literature describing meals and recreated those meals and the "place settings" in which they might have been served; thus, the food eaten by characters in Robinson Crusoe is pictured sitting in the sand. On each set of facing pages, the verso page presents the literary passage and a few pieces of trivia about the author of the passage, the food described, or another somewhat related topic. On the recto page is the photo of the author's recreation of the meal.

For me, the most beautiful of the photos depict outdoor settings--strawberries picked by Emma and her friends, potatoes and eggs in The Secret Garden, and a bucket of the title fruit in Blueberries for Sal. Some of the other photos are quite evocative--Moby-Dick and Lolita are two examples that spoke to me. The photo accompanying Maurice Sendak's Chicken Soup with Rice is marvelously unexpected. Although American Psycho was written in 1991, that photo beautifully depicts the artiness of modern cuisine. I found other photos rather bland--for example, while it may have been authentic, the picture of Proust's madeleines lacked visual interest, conveying none of the "precious essence" he found in their taste.

Fictitious Dishes is pretty much a gimmick--but I found looking through it fun.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Remembering Laughter, by Wallace Stegner

This novella was Stegner's first published long-form fiction, written for a contest that won him $2500, a huge sum at the time (1937). While not as complex as his later, longer work, Remembering Laughter nonetheless has many of the features that were to become hallmarks of Stegner's writing: a strong sense of place; themes related to betrayal, forgiveness, and emotional repression; and the beautiful use of language.

Remembering Laughter begins at Eric Stuart's funeral and then flashes back to critical events that happened some 17 years ago. Eric and his wife Margaret are at the train station near their Iowa farm, waiting for the arrival of Margaret's sister Elspeth, who has immigrated from Scotland. We know immediately that Margaret is a little too restrained and Eric, who has a fondness for drink and wild stories, perhaps a bit too far toward the opposite pole. Nonetheless, the sisters are delighted to be reunited, and Elspeth quickly falls in love with the farm and its workings and, all too soon, with Eric, who finds her a welcome change from his uptight wife. The results of their affair are cruel for all three characters.

In its brevity and focus, Remembering Laughter reminds me of a Greek tragedy. The emotional death of the characters is stark, particularly in contrast with the lovely language in which their story is told. Highly recommended.

Favorite passage:
Almost any sentence could be a favorite. Here are just two examples:

The perfect weather of Indian Summer lengthened and lingered, warm sunny days were followed by brisk nights with Halloween a presentiment in the air.

. . . as she sat quietly finishing her breakfast, she looked across the table into the comfortless future, and the sternness of her unforgiving was bleak in her eyes.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn

Novel Conversations is reading Gone Girl this month, which I have already read. Since I didn't think I could stomach a re-reading, I decided to try another Gillian Flynn novel, Dark Places. Libby Day is in her early 30s. She has lived her entire adult life on donations sent to her after the grisly murder of her two sisters and her mother Patty and her teenage brother Ben was convicted of the crimes. For most of the nearly 25 years since, she has tried not to think about the crimes or her imprisoned brother or  how she might create an actual life for herself. Then her lawyer tells her there is less than $1000 left in her trust and she needs to find a job.

Libby, however, doesn't see herself as the type of person who can be relied on to show up for work every day. So she becomes involved with a group of misfits, Kill Club, whose hobby is investigating old crimes. Some of the members are particularly interested in the Day case because they believe Ben was wrongly convicted and that little Libby's testimony (she was 7 at the time) was fabricated. Members of the club, led by the sad-sack Lyle, offer to pay her to talk to people who might know something about the case, in hopes of determining what really happened on that terrible night in 1985. They believe people will be more likely to talk to Libby than to them, and she agrees to do it for the money.  Libby sets off on her investigations, talking to her brother for the first time in 24 years and finally looking through some of her family's belongings, boxed for more than two decades (in part, she looks through the items with the intent of selling some of them to Kill Club members). She looks up her ne'er-do-well father and contacts such other people as a younger girl Ben was accused of molesting.

Flynn intercuts accounts of Libby's activities in the present with Ben and Patty's narrations of events on the day of the murders. Both Ben and Patty are spiraling downward--Ben because he has, in his desperation not to be the weird poor kid too small for sports, made several bad decisions about who to hang out with and Patty because her financial situation is reaching desperate straits and rumors about Ben's behavior (involving both child molestation and devil worship) are circulating around their small Kansas town as fast as a plains tornado. Meanwhile, back in the "now," Libby is finding that she wants to know what happened for her own sake, not for the morbid curiosity of the Kill Club. While I was convinced at one point that the book was going to end without unearthing the truth, that did not happen.

Dark Places is definitely dark; the rapidity with which things can go wrong is stunningly depicted, as is the effect that becoming pro-active can pull a person back from the brink. While Libby starts as an obnoxious character, she grows more sympathetic as she struggles to make sense of what happened to her family. For me, this is a key difference with Gone Girl, in which the reader becomes more and more convinced that the characters are unredeemable; here, Libby redeems herself, making Dark Places a more palatable, though still disturbing, read.

Favorite passages:
Coffee goes great with sudden death.

That's what they were: a home past its expiration date.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

From the first sentence--"Lydia is dead"--you know Everything I Never Told You is going to be sad, and it is so very sad. Lydia is the 15-year-old middle child of James and Marilyn Lee, their acknowledged favorite. One morning, Lydia isn't in her bed; when she is eventually found dead in a nearby lake, the family falls apart. But chapters about the past, intermingled with those focused on the weeks after the tragedy, reveal that the family was falling apart for years.

Lydia was a focal point for the family's unhappiness. She got more attention than brother Nath and little sister Hannah but also was subjected to greater pressure. James, a Chinese American history professor who never felt like he fit, wanted Lydia to be popular. He gave her dresses he bought off mannequins in store windows because he assumed they were "in"; he pressured her to call her friends (she often pretended to be talking on the phone but there was no one on the line); he gave her How to Win Friends and Influence People as a Christmas gift. Marilyn, his Anglo wife gave up her dream of being a doctor--still an unusual goal for a girl in the late 1950s--to marry James. She wanted Lydia to be a scientist, and she pressured her daughter to do well in school and gave her scientific tomes and biographies of female scientists for Christmas.

Lydia was miserable--she was failing physics, she had only one friend, and she was so desperately unhappy about her brother's impending departure for college that she hid his acceptance letter from Harvard. Both before and after Lydia's death, Nath could not wait to escape his family and the small Ohio town where he too felt totally out of place. Meanwhile, Hannah was so starved for attention that she stole from her family members, squirreling away small objects in her room. During conflict, she could often be found rolled into a ball under a table.

While there is some "mystery" about what happened to Lydia, the real story is how little people know even those they love most and think they know best. The members of the Lee family love each other--and the author provides an ending that builds on that love (somewhat overly optimistically in my opinion)--but they really understand nothing about each other, despite their shared experience as outsiders in small town 1970s Ohio.

For all but the most self-confident parents, Everything I Never Told You cannot help but prompt reflection on well you know your own children, the expectations you placed on them, and the ways in which you failed them. For parents whose families were in some way different from the majority (my family would fall in this category), the reflection may be even more difficult. Nonetheless, I would recommend this book.

Favorite passages:
All afternoon Nath had played his record over and over, but he has finally let it wind to a stop, and now a thick silence, like fog, seeps out onto the landing.

Years of yearning had made her sensitive, the way a starving dog twitches its nostrils at the faintest scent of food. She could not mistake it. She recognized it at once: Love, one-way deep adoration that bounced off and did not bounce back; careful, quiet love that didn't care and went on anyway.

Years from now, they will still be arranging the pieces they know, puzzling over her features, redrawing her outlines in their minds. Sure that they've got her right this time, positive in this moment that they understand her completely, at last.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Quiet Gentleman, by Georgette Heyer

I used to read Georgette Heyer regularly--but probably hadn't read one of her books in the past 40 years. When one was available as part of a BOGO offer from Audible, I decided to give her a try. It also seemed like something essentially escapist would be a good antidote to the rigors of Midnight's Children.

Heyer's Regency romances appear to have been inspired by Jane Austen--many are set in the time period when Austen lived and about which she wrote (although Heyer was writing in the mid-20th century), they satirize Regency England, and they generally end with an engagement. In The Quiet Gentleman, she satirizes both the aristocracy and the intellectuals who opposed the monarchy. She also incorporates an element of mystery (she also write in that genre)--who is trying to kill the new Earl of St Erth, recently returned to his family estate from service in the military?

I enjoyed listening to the book, although the narrator from time to time "overacted." Will I pick up another Heyer soon? Probably not, but I don't regret revisiting this author from my youth.

Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie

Reading Midnight's Children took me nine years after my son recommended it to me (finally got through it on the third try--but listening rather than reading). It has also taken me several days to sit down to write about it because I feel like I have little sensible to say. Even summarizing major plot points is difficult. But here's an attempt.

Midnight's Children covers 60 years in India's history, with independence--and the birth of the book's protagonist/narrator--as the fulcrum point. The 30 years prior to Saleem Sinai's birth just as the nation became independent are examined primarily from the perspective of his mother's family, a Muslim family with a share of dysfunctions equal to those of any modern American family. Eventually we reach the point at which 1001 babies are born in the first hour of India's independence; two--Saleem and a boy named Shiva--are exchanged by a nurse seeking approval from her revolutionary beloved (she believes that giving the poor Hindu child born to a street entertainer's wife the life of the wealthy Muslim boy will please him). After a misadventure at 9 years old that involves breathing the drawstring of a pair of pajama pants into his sinuses, Saleem believes that he can convene the surviving "Children of Midnight," who have a variety of supernatural powers, in his mind, which he does every night. While Saleem and Shiva quickly become rivals, Saleem believes these children will be the salvation of India. He is bereft when his parents trick him into having sinus surgery, which causes the loss of his ESP.

Saleem's family eventually emigrates to Pakistan, where his sister becomes a famous singer and he falls in love with her, assuming that, because they are not biologically related, she may agree to a relationship. Alas, he is wrong about this, and his life takes a turn for the worse. Not only is he pulled into every major event in Indo-Pakistani history, he concludes that the purpose of each event was to harm someone important to Saleem--his family is wiped out in the war of 1965, and the surviving Children of Midnight are sterilized and sperectomized (suffered the removal of hope) during the emergency declared by Indira Gandhi ("The Widow").  As he approaches his 31st birthday, Saleem is running a chutney factory started by the woman who exchanged him with Shiva as a baby. Although he plans to marry the woman, Padma, to whom he has been narrating the story of his life on his birthday, he also believes he will die that day (he sees his body cracking--though doctors deny this--and believes he will fall apart into dust).

Saleem is the ultimate unreliable narrator--he refers to himself in both the first and third persons and even admits that he is misremembering some events. He is so unreliable that I took the aspects of the book that many reviewers have described as magical realism or myth-making to be evidence that he is insane. His insanity was then, I thought, symbolic of the insanity of colonialism, post-colonial politics, and religious division on the Indian subcontinent. This is not the reading of scholars of either literature or Indian/Pakistani history, but it's what seemed to make sense to me.

Midnight's Children has won many prizes, including twice being named the best book in the history of the Booker prize (at the 25th and 40th anniversaries of that prize). It's certainly a book of great imagination and humor with a serious purpose. I feel a sense of achievement in having gotten through it--but I don't feel changed by the reading. Nor would it be likely to win the Singleton Prize if there were such a thing.

Favorite passages:
Reality is a question of perspective; the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seems--but as you approach the present, it inevitably seems more and more incredible. . . Am I so far gone, in my desperate need for meaning, that I'm prepared to distort everything--to rewrite the whole history of my times purely in order to place myself in a central role? Today, in my confusion, I can't judge. I'll have to leave it to others.  For me, there can be no going back; I must finish what I started, even if, inevitably, what I finish turns out not to be what I began . . .

The process of revision [Laurel's note: in making chutney--and in writing autobiography] should be constant and endless; don't think I'm satisfied with what I've done! Among my unhappinesses: an overly-harsh taste from those jars containing memories of my father; a certain ambiguity in the love-flavor of "Jamila Singer" (Special Formula No. 22), which might lead the unperceptive to conclude that I've invented the whole story of the baby-swap to justify an incestuous love . . . yes, I should revise and revise, improve and improve, but there is neither the time nor the energy. I am obliged to offer no more than this stubborn sentence: It happened that way because that's how it happened. . . .

One day, perhaps, the world may taste the pickles of history. They may be too strong for some palates, their smell may be overpowering, tears may rise to eyes; I hope nevertheless that it will be possible to say of them that they possess the authentic taste of truth . . that they are, despite everything, acts of love.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward's memoir of growing up in an impoverished African American community in south Mississippi and watching five young men in her life--including her only brother--die over a four-year period is sad in so many ways that it's hard to write about (I can't even imagine how sad it was to live and to write). Ward's parents had four children and a troubled relationship, separating and reconciling numerous times before they finally divorced. Her father dreamed of having his own martial arts school, and her mother supported that dream, working as a housekeeper to keep the family financially afloat while he unsuccessfully tried to launch the school. Despite her mother's best efforts, her father's infidelity and inability to stay focused on his family (he had six other children by four different women) brought the marriage to an end.

As the oldest child, Jesmyn was often responsible for taking care of her siblings, just as her mother had cared for younger siblings while her mother worked. Jesmyn "looked at my father and mother and understood dimly that was harder to be a girl, that boys had it easier." And yet, boys and young men also had it hard: "Men's bodies litter my family history. The pain of the women they left behind pulls them from the beyond, makes them appear as ghosts."

Bullied by students in her public school, Jesmyn was offered the chance to attend a private school (her mother's employer volunteered to pay her expenses), where she was one of only a handful of black students and faced racism and the persistent experience of being "the other." Between her school life and her father's leaving the family, she felt herself to be worthless. And yet she worked hard at school, loved to read and write, and managed to leave Mississippi for an education at Stanford, work in New York, and a second advanced degree at Michigan.

The stories of the death of the five young men--one by a heart attack that may have been brought on by drug use, two in car accidents, one by suicide, and one the victim of an unsolved murder--are heartbreaking, particularly that of her beloved brother. After his death, Ward struggled mightily, considering suicide. The aspect of her story that I found most devastating was how Ward was constantly drawn back to her home town, where her depression and the community's culture led her to drink, get high, and hang out aimlessly, just as she might have had she not escaped to college. Of course, we know that she has become a very successful writer and professor, so she has indeed built a different life for herself, but she doesn't make clear how she managed to rise above the psychological damage that poverty, racism, lack of trust, and grief created.

Ward tells the story of her life chronologically, interspersed with chapters that briefly recount each young man's death, starting with the last death first. This structure is somewhat confusing but then suddenly seems to make sense when the two parts of the book converge at the time of her brother's death. I only wish we had the chapter of the book that takes place when she begins to heal.

Favorite passages:
What I did not understand then was that the same pressures were weighing on us all. My entire community suffered from a lack of trust: we didn't trust society to provide the basics of a good education, safety, access to good jobs, fairness in the justice system. And even as we distrusted the society around us, the culture that cornered us and told us we were perpetually less, we distrusted each other. We did not trust our fathers to raise us, to provide for us. Because we trusted nothing, we endeavored to protect ourselves, boys becoming misogynistic and violent, girls turning duplicitous, all of us hopeless.

How could I know then that this would be my life: yearning to leave the South and doing so again and again, but perpetually called back to home by a love so thick it choked me?

Saturday, August 16, 2014

You Should Have Known, by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Grace Reinhart is a family therapist who is about to publish her first book, You Should Have Known, which provides advice to women on how to avoid marrying the wrong person; Grace truly believes that the wrong man always tells you that he is the wrong man, if only you will listen. Grace is married to a successful pediatric oncologist, sends her son Henry to the same private school she attended as a girl (and the parents at the school are portrayed just as those of us not living in New York would imagine them to be), and is happy nesting with her family in the same apartment she grew up in. While she, Henry, and husband Jonathan Sachs may not have many (or any) friends, they are a happy family.

But then things start to go wrong. She cannot reach her husband when he is supposed to be at a medical conference, and another mother at the Reardon School is the victim of a violent attack. When the police come to question her, Grace cannot imagine what she could possibly tell them that would be helpful. Soon, however, everyday brings revelations about her marriage that, perhaps, she "should have known." As her carefully constructed life collapses, Grace must figure out how to rebuild.

This book starts rather slowly--readers have to make it through a long interview Grace gives a reporter from Vogue about her book and accounts of two events at the school. While these sections establish Grace as the smug and judgmental, yet still somewhat insecure, person that she is and introduce us to her philosophy and the cultural milieu in which she lives, they could perhaps have been somewhat briefer. For me, one of the most interesting things about the book was trying to figure out why I stayed interested in an unsympathetic character like Grace--particularly when the reader spends the entire book inside Grace's head, subject to her self-delusions, judgments, panic, pain, recriminations, and on and on. I never really found an answer to that question, but I give Korelitz credit for making me care what happened to Grace despite not liking her (and, in fact, disliking her rather fiercely early on in the book).

I don't think this is a great book, but I did find it entertaining.

Favorite passage:
Someone has custom-written a horror story for my life, like those people who take your family members and turn them into a song for the golden anniversary celebration. But not like that at all.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Acts of God, by Ellen Gilchrist

Ellen Gilchrist is a much-lauded writer of short stories.  Throughout Acts of God, her twelfth collection, people deal with a variety of crises and disasters--hurricanes, tornadoes, terrorist threats, serious illness, neighborhood disagreements (okay, that doesn't really qualify as a crisis)--and the ways in which people respond to them. Often, those responses are impressive: In "Miracle in Adkins, Arkansas," a teenage girl helps rescue a baby from the wreckage of a tornado and finds her perspective on life changed. A young single mother and college professor who serves in the National Guard is called to help in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina; her first rescue, of a young girl, has unexpected outcomes. Three men somewhat fool-heartedly refuse to evacuate during Katrina, but prove they made the right decision by volunteering at a stricken hospital.

My two favorite stories are darker. In the title story,  when an elderly couple's caretaker doesn't show up for work, they decide to drive to the grocery store themselves. The outing ends tragically, when the husband drives into a pit on a construction site and both are killed. While many of their family members are furious with the caretaker, their eldest son describes their demise as "a sad but brilliant death"--and this seems right (and who wouldn't want a brilliant death?). Somewhat similarly, in "The Dissolution of the Myelin Sheath," Philipa has been diagnosed with MS. While her husband wants to take her to Mayo or another one of the "best" hospitals, Philipa has other plans. She carefully plots her suicide so her family members will be shielded from its reality--she jumps overboard near the motor of a cruise ship.  Her note to her husband ends, "Nothing is of value except to have lived well and to die without pain."

Gilchrist's stories are not as opaque as many of the short stories that cause me to ask, when I get to the end, "What?"  Her writing is straightforward and generally unornamented. Thus, I feel somewhat hypocritical, or at least recalcitrant, admitting that when I get to the end of Gilchrist's stories, I find myself asking, "So what?" There just doesn't seem to be a lot of heft there. Given Gilchrist's reputation, I'm willing to accept that the fault is with me and not the stories. While I wouldn't advise people to avoid Acts of God,  I also wouldn't suggest rushing out to get it.

Favorite passage:
I'm not interesting. I'm a cliche inside a self-fulfilling prophecy inside a stereotype.

The Perpetual Commotion of the Heart, by Norma Gay Prewett

Gay Prewett is a friend of mine from high school (we once performed "The Cruel War" at our school's talent show, feeling like ultracool folk singers; unfortunately, I couldn't actually play the guitar I was strumming, but that's another story). Several years ago, we reconnected on Facebook and I am happy to report that she has just published her first collection of poetry, The Perpetual Commotion of the Heart.

From the resonance of that title and the beautiful painting that adorns the cover, created by Gay herself, to the moving final poem "Perhaps a Flower: Doing the Dishes," the collection draws the reader into Gay's Arkansas-bred family, her beloved Wisconsin cabin on Mapledale Creek, and even her yoga practice. As I have stated several times before, I'm not really qualified to comment on poetry qua poetry. Still, I can recognize a deft author's hand that, through rhythm, image, and well-crafted phrase, captures beautifully the poignancy of motherhood, of growing up financially poor but rich in love and noise, of aging, of, essentially, life. Gay's poems are moving without being sentimental. One of her blurb-writers does a much better job describing Gay: "She is a pragmatist of earthly practicalities . . . and a fearless limit-tester in love" (Bob Wake).

Because no collection in my experience can move any particular reader with every poem, I admit the poems in the "Doing the Down Doggerel" section are not my favorites (though I love the section title). However, those in the book's other four sections provide more than adequate pleasure.

Favorite passages:
I taste history and future in this tangy sweet
Grandmother and great-great-grandchild together.
Nothing, not even jelly, will ever be as clear again.
From "Grape Jellying at the End of the Century"

I am tacking indirectly toward a home
I know is there, but may not recognize
From "Perhaps a Flower: Doing the Dishes"

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarty

At the beginning of Big Little Lies, we learn that all hell broke loose at a Pirriwee Primary School fund-raiser (Trivia Night, with attendees costumed as Elvis or Audrey Hepburn) and someone was killed--but we don't know who, how, or why. From that starting point, Moriarty goes back six months to tell how the school's helicopter parents got to the point of murder at a fundraiser. Most of the story is told from the perspective of three kindergarten moms who are friends--Madeline, the bitchy ring-leader of the trio who despises the "Blonde Bobs," the gifted-and-talented parents, and the power mothers, all of whom make her feel inadequate; Celeste, who is so beautiful and rich that everyone assumes she is completely happy; and Jane, the younger single mom whose son is immediately singled-out by one of the power mothers as a bully. Of course, each of the three has problems not immediately visible to their friends (as do the rival mothers); these problems range from abusive and unfaithful husbands to conflict with a teenage daughter and self-esteem so damaged as to be crippling.

Interspersed with the narrative from these three women's perspectives are snippets of quotes from police statements taken after the disastrous Trivia Night, along with comments from the officer in charge of the case. The "witnesses" provide such disparate stories of what happened not only that evening but in the preceding months that the thinly veiled frustration on the part of the officer is fully justifiable--but humorous as well.

Liane Moriarty is an excellent satirist, skewering modern parents in a way that is especially enjoyable for a mother from an early generation like myself. At the same time, she deals with the serious issues of bullying violence against women without being at all preachy and engages the reader in a "mystery" that is unlike more traditional who-dun-its. While I had guessed a couple of the "surprises" that came at the end of the book, other developments were unexpected, which made for a satisfying ending. Recommended.

Favorite passage:
It had never crossed her mind that sending your child to school would be like going back to school yourself.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Cuckoo's Calling, by Robert Galbraith

Cormoran Strike is a down-and-out private investigator in London. He lost part of a leg serving in Afghanistan, has broken up with his beautiful fiance and is living in his office, and owes money to his rock-star father, whom he has only met twice in his 35 years (his mother, long-dead of a drug overdose, was known as a super-groupie). To top it off, a new temporary secretary has shown up, despite his request to the agency not to send anyone (he cannot afford to pay her). His luck is about to change, however, because the new temp Robin is an excellent assistant and, more importantly, a lawyer hires him to investigate the death of his supermodel sister. Needless to say, Strike discovers what really happened to the beautiful young woman.

I probably wouldn't be writing about this book, since I have generally stopped writing about all but the best mysteries I read. The Cuckoo's Calling is entertaining--albeit longer (455 pp.) than it needs to be and using the rather tired convention of the private investigator meeting with the villain to explain in detail how he solved the case--but it's not a great mystery. However, it is notable because Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling, she of Harry Potter fame. In Cormoran Strike, she has created an endearing character, and I will definitely give the second title in the series a try.

Favorite passage:
This was the hour when he found London most lovable; the working day over, her pub windows were warm and jewel-like, her streets thrummed with life, and the indefatigable permanence of her aged buildings, softened by the street lights, became strangely reassuring. We have seen plenty like you, they seemed to murmur soothingly, as he limped along Oxford Street carrying a boxed-up camp bed. Seven and a half million hearts were beating in close proximity in this heaving old city, and many, after all, would be aching far worse than his.