Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Best of 2015

It's always fun to see how the year started and ended; 2015 started with J.A. Jance (somewhat frighteningly, I read more J.A. Jance than anyone else this year) and ended with Toni Morrison. In between were sufficient good books to make me happy to be able to access books in so many forms. I read 159 books this year but was undoubtedly proudest when I finished Middlemarch; I'm currently working on Anna Karenina and anticipate feeling equally puffed up by my own achievements when I finish it.

Anyway, here are the books I liked best in 2015.

Best Novels
A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson. Two years ago, I picked Kate Atkinson books as the best of the year in two different categories and she came through again this year with a follow-up to Life After Life focusing on Teddy, the beloved brother of that novel's heroine Ursula. Again, she experiments with form and challenges the reader to think about their assumptions about fiction, while educating us (or at least me) about pilots in World War II--since my dad was one, this is a fascinating topic for me--and giving us insight into human relationships.

Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf. This novella tells the story of two older residents of Haruf's fictional Holt, Colorado, who begin sleeping together to assuage their loneliness (and, at first, it's just sleeping and talking). It's a lovely reflection on friendship, aging, and, indeed, humanity that is also sad, a sadness deepened by the fact that Haruf wrote it as he was dying. There won't be another story from Holt or more passages like this: "I do love this physical world. I love this physical life with you. And the air and the country. The backyard, the gravel in the back alley. The grass. The cool nights. Lying in bed talking with you in the dark."  That is a loss for all readers.

Honorable Mention: The History of the World in 10-1/2 Chapters, by Julian Barnes

Best Short Stories
Redeployment, by Phil Klay. These stories about the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and the psychological damage done to those who fought them should be required reading for those of us who supported or opposed those wars but were safe at home all the while.

Best Mystery
The Skeleton Road, by Val McDermid. This is a double mystery (who killed the person whose skeleton was found on the roof of an abandoned building in Edinburgh and who is the vigilante killing Balkan war criminals?) but it is also a history lesson about the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s. Definitely not a perfect mystery, but the best of the year by a large margin.

Best Nonfiction
Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande. I'm 65 and my mother is 91, so books about aging and dying have resonance. Being Mortal is a clear-eyed examination of the disservices our culture--particularly medical culture--does to the elderly and the terminally ill. This passage from the book is one of my favorites from the year: "In the end, people don't view their life as merely the average of all its moments--which, after all, is mostly nothing much plus some sleep. For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story. A story has a sense of a whole, and its arc is determined by the significant moments, the ones where something happens. Measurements of people's minute-by-minute levels of pleasure and pain miss this fundamental aspect of human existence. A seemingly happy life may be empty. A seemingly difficult life may be devoted to a great cause. We have purposes larger than ourselves."

Missoula, by Jon Krakauer. This examination of rape in one college town is one of the most frightening books I have read in a long time. If you can read this book and still deny there is a problem with rape on college campuses--a problem fueled by alcohol, a sense of male entitlement, and inadequate education for police officers, prosecutors, and young men and women--I have serious doubts about your rationality.

Honorable Mention: The Light of the World, by Elizabeth Alexander (Michelle Obama's favorite book of the year)

Best Poetry
Citizen, by Claudia Rankine. I don't think Citizen is actually classified as poetry, but to me its language was poetic. Take, for example, this passage: "The world is wrong. You can't put the past behind you. It's buried in you; it's turned your flesh into its own cupboard. Not everything remembered is useful but it all comes from the world to be stored in you."  Even with Rankine's wonderful language, reading this material is painful. Rankine forces our attention to everyday racism--the thoughtless remark, the refusal to sit next to an African American on the bus, the easy judgments about prominent African Americans who, for one moment, lose their equanimity. But she also looks at the larger problems of race in our society, including police killings of African Americans.

December's Reading

December was definitely an interesting reading month, with some definite highs, unfortunately not in the first category.

The Unbidden Truth, by Kate Wilhelm
The Short Drop, by Matthew FitzSimmons
Dance of the Bones, by J.A. Jance

I wouldn't recommend any of these mysteries--Dance of the Bones was an especially disappointing offering from the usually reliable J.A. Jance.

Glitter and Glue, by Kelly Corrigan

A few years ago, Corrigan penned a memoir about her relationship with her father. Glitter and Glue is  purportedly about how she came to appreciate her mother, with whom she had a more distant relationship. Unfortunately, it focuses mostly on the author herself, offering little real insight into the mother-daughter relationship. Corrigan exemplifies why I don't care greatly for memoirs--she thinks her life is interesting and meaningful in some way that should engage others (and, to be fair, she has many fans), but I think her life to be about as memorable as mine--i.e., she's just a regular person and her efforts to make her life into some kind of metaphor fall flat.

The State We're In, by Ann Beattie
The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishigura
Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin
Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal
Redeployment, by Phil Klay
God Help the Child, by Toni Morrison

Sometimes I wonder why I continue to read short stories (and memoirs for that matter) when I rarely like them. Ann Beattie is a well-regarded practitioner of the form but the Maine stories in The State We're In mostly left me cold. My favorites were three stories that featured teenager Jocelyn, sent to live with a peculiar aunt and uncle while her mother recovers from surgery; Jocelyn is taking an English course in summer school, a course requiring her to consider such topics as "What Magical Realism Would Be." While the other stories do convey a sense of place, I was not enthralled.

And speaking of not enthralled, I could not figure out what Kazuo Ishigura was trying to achieve with The Buried Giant--unless he's just trying to prove he can write in many different genres. This book is a historic fantasy, in essence an exercise in myth-making. It recounts the journey of an elderly couple seeking to find their son; they cannot remember much about their pasts, allegedly because of a mist that lies across the English countryside. On their quest, they encounter knights, monks, strange animals, a dragon, magical children, and more; the two appear to be devoted to one another, but as they begin to remember troubling incidents in their past, that devotion is called into question. While I appreciate Ishigura's versatility and creativity, The Buried Giant was too obscure and quasi-allegorical for my taste.

Revolutionary Road, in contrast, is the realistic story of a young couple starting a family and moving to suburbia in the post-World War II years. While veteran Frank Wheeler believes he is somehow superior to others and destined for unspecified intellectual achievements, his girlfriend April gets pregnant, they marry, he takes a dead-end, do-nothing job at the same company where his father worked, and they move to the suburbs. As they sink into conformity, they still long for another life; they even go so far as to plan a move to Paris, where Frank can find the niche where he will excel. Instead, April becomes pregnant with their third child, and their marriage, deprived of the dream that propelled it, begins to collapse. It's a story of self-delusion, isolation, and conformity and, though the characters really have only themselves to blame for their problems, a tragedy nonetheless. Highly recommended.

The Storied Life of AJ Fikry, Novel Conversation's selection for January, is much more upbeat. It's the story of widower AJ Fikry, who lives above his small bookstore in a tourist town on an island off the Massachusetts coast. He drinks too much, carries only books he likes (he's not a fan of David Foster Wallace), and doesn't really like most of his customers. But then someone leaves a baby in the store and soon he's raising the child, dating a book rep, organizing a book group for police officers, and hosting author events. The book talk/gossip is fun and, although there are some sad moments in the book, overall it leaves the reader feeling positive about humanity. Also highly recommended.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest is another quirky book, this time featuring a Minnesota girl, Eva Thorvald, who has the finest palate of her generation. The book follows Eva from her birth, through difficult family circumstances, to a teen-age dating experience, to success as a chef who creates exquisite dining experiences that people wait years to gain entry to. The chapters are like vignettes, many telling the story of how she met someone who would later become part of her "constructed" family. I wanted to like this book more than I did, and I can't really explain why I didn't find it as entertaining as The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.

Iraq war veteran Phil Klay won the National Book Award for Redeployment, a collection of 12 short stories that depict the physical and psychological effects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on those who fought them. The characters range from a recently returned Marine struggling to figure out how to reestablish himself in life stateside to a chaplain, a serviceman who served on corpse detail, and an Arab-American college student who tries to explain his service in psychological operations to a fellow student. Through the stories, Klay portrays the psychological damage and dislocation that the war has wreaked on those who have fought it. It's impossible to say I enjoyed this book--and I wouldn't have chosen it as the best book of 2014--but those who want to understand the wars of the past decade plus should add it to their reading lists.

God Help the Child is more contemporary than most of Toni Morrison's work. It is the story of Bride, a successful young woman whose mother disliked her because of her extremely dark skin. As the book opens, Bride's lover has left her with no real explanation, and she is devastated. At the same time, she is planning to meet a woman she testified against as a child as the woman leaves prison; when the woman beats her within an inch of her life, Off work while she recuperates from her injuries, Bride begins to deteriorate in other ways, apparently morphing back into the little black girl she once was. She decides to take a road trip to find her ersatz lover Booker, who has deep-seated issues of his own. She crashes her Jaguar and spends weeks recuperating with a hippy couple who stole a child off the street. When she does find Booker, yet another tragedy occurs. While Bride and, to a lesser extent, Booker are the primary characters, others also have a chance to narrate sections of the book; these include Bride's friend Brooklyn, whom Bride trusts completely but is actually plotting to take her job; Sweetness, Bride's delusional mother; the woman whom Bride accused of child abuse; and others. Bride, Booker, and others were affected by child abuse/neglect and the one character who seemed to reach out to  child--Booker's aunt Queen--neglected her own children. God Help the Child is as sad as the title suggests and it's not entirely satisfying, but it's still worth reading. After all, it's Toni Morrison!

Gratitude, by Oliver Sacks
The Best American Poetry 2015, edited by Sherman Alexie

Gratitude is a slim collection of four essays by Oliver Sacks written in the last two years of his life. Focusing on age, illness, and death, they reveal Sacks to have been an amazing human being who provides a compelling model of what it means to face death with dignity and courage.

It can surprise no one that Sherman Alexie has more sophisticated taste in poetry than I. On first reading, I found many of the poems opaque, but enjoyed Madelyn Garner's reflections on dementia in "The Garden in August," James Galvin's poem about a "Wedding Dress" for sale at a thrift store, and Rebecca Hazelton's lovely "My Husband," which celebrates the beauty of the mundane.  I started to enjoy this collection more when I got to the author notes, which included many interesting discussions of the poets' work--how one compelling rhyme can morph into a series that create the base for a poem, how experimenting with form drives some poets' work, how a poet found the raw stuff of her poem on Craig's List. Reading the poems again in conjunction with the notes led me to greater appreciation of the poems. While I feel certain most readers will not like all of these poems, I feel equally certain they will like some of them and will learn something from reading the notes.

Pick of the Litter
Revolutionary Road, The Storied Life of AJ Fikry, and Gratitude.

Favorite Passages
I cannot pretend that I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.  
--Oliver Sacks, Gratitude 

How resigned she seems
to the eviction notices her body is receiving.
--Madelyn Garner, "The Garden in August"

The less-than-distinguished GOP field for a DiCaprio biopic: Leo, Revealed.
A brand new wok for Lou Brock
--Cody Walker, "Trades I Would Make" (hilariously silly)

Monday, November 30, 2015

November's Reading

I didn't get much read this month--just a tad too much work (being a consultant/freelancer can mean periods of excessively long hours intermixed with times with nothing to do but read), but here's what I did read in November.

Career of Evil, by Robert Galbreath (J.K. Rowling)
Fatal Grace, by Louise Penny

Both of these mysteries were moderately enjoyable, though both also had irritating aspects. Career of Evil, the third of J.K. Rowling's Cormoran Strike series, annoyed me by stringing out the supposed attraction between Cormoran and his assistant/business partner Robin. It's Maddie and David in Moonlighting but with much less clever dialogue. We pick up the series to read a mystery, not a romance novel, so just knock it off already! Fatal Grace is the second Inspector Gamache book (there are many more--I am late to this party); I've already forgotten the plot if that gives you an idea of how compelling it is. But what was really annoying was Penny's habit of giving Gamache a flash of insight (Suddenly, he knew where to look . . . or who did it . . . or whatever) without telling us what it was. She's certainly not the only mystery author who uses this technique, but its commonality makes it no less irritating.

A Room with a View, by E. M. Forster

I listened to A Room with a View last year, but the narration by Frederick Davidson (also known as David Case--avoid at all costs!) was so awful that I couldn't actually focus on the story of an Edwardian girl's rebellion against society's mores. Ergo, I decided to give it a try in print, and I did indeed find it more enjoyable though not deeply affecting. Perhaps I am too old to be moved by a young woman's search for true love in the face of narrow-mindedness and bigotry. Now I am thinking that seeing the Merchant-Ivory movie might be the way to understand why this book is regarded as a classic.

Early Warning, by Jane Smiley
Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff
Did You Ever Have a Family? by Bill Clegg
Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

Early Warning is the second title in Jane Smiley's trilogy about the Langdons, an Iowa farm family--though most  family members have now moved away from the farm. As in the first volume, the family somehow is involved in every major event that occurs during the period in which this installment is set--1953-1986. A child dies in Viet Nam, another becomes involved with Reverend Jim Jones's organization, a family member contracts AIDS in the early years of the epidemic, another has breast cancer but is in denial. While the complicated plot held my interest, I found myself disappointed that this second volume resembled the first (Some Luck) in its lack of depth. While we may have been privy to a bit more of the Langdons' interior lives, the emotional impact of the many tragedies the family suffered is muted.

Fates and Furies, shortlisted for the National Book Award and recipient of much admiration, also disappointed. The book is the portrait of a marriage, as seen by its two participants, Lotto and Mathilde. The first half of the book is told from Lotto's perspective, starting before he was born. Lotto longs to be an actor but, after years of failure, stumbles into a career as a playwright, a career in which he experiences some success. Throughout his life, he struggles with an estrangement from his mother, both overconfidence and deep insecurity, and homoerotic yearnings. The second half of the book is Mathilde's and, through her story, we learn that the marriage is not as Lotto perceived it to be. Although some reviewers have found Mathilde the most interesting character, I must admit that I found them both to be hollow. As for the notion that a relationship may be completely different when viewed from opposite sides, Showtime's The Affair (I'm in the midst of season 2 right now) does it better.

But now for some good news--Did You Ever Have a Family? is a memorable book. While it seems to be the story of a woman, June, whose daughter, prospective son-in-law, boyfriend, and ex-husband are killed in a house fire on the eve of the daughter's wedding. Distraught, June starts driving West, looking for some respite. But Clegg does not always focus directly on Ruth, choosing instead to "get to the heart of [the story] by circling [it] with other voices and perspectives." Some of the other voices are critical--the mother of June's boyfriend, the father of the daughter's fiance. Others seem much more tangential--a man whose mother made the wedding cake, the co-owner of a hotel where June stays at the end of her headlong flight. Together, however, they build a web of connections that seems to me to be the point of the book. There's a mystery element that isn't really very mysterious but nonetheless adds to the emotional texture of the book by allowing Clegg to examine from multiple viewpoints the toxic nature of guilt. Definitely recommended.

I had not intended to read Go Set a Watchman because I felt sure that Harper Lee if in full possession of her faculties would not want it published. However, when the audiobook (read well by Reese Witherspoon) became available for checkout from OverDrive, I caved. The book probably shouldn't have been published--it's not a very good novel although sections when Jean Louise (aka Scout) flashes back to her youth are quite lovely. What was so interesting to me was how unshocking I found Atticus's racism--this is how many people in the South thought (and some still think) despite the fact that they knew intellectually that they were wrong. Perhaps too many people were too invested in the Gregory Peck version of Atticus, which was (in my opinion) a sanitized version of the more flawed Atticus in Mockingbird.  I wouldn't recommend the book, but I am glad I listened to it.

Short Stories
You Won't Remember This, by Kate Blackwell

Sadly, the title is prophetic, as I read this book early in the month and only remember fleeting moments from the short stories it contains (perhaps a downfall of my new approach to the blog). I do recollect that the stories generally feature Southern women. Sorry--that's pretty much it. Note to self: Make some notes next time.

What the Dog Saw, by Malcolm Gladwell

What the Dog Saw is a several-years-old collection of Gladwell's articles from the New Yorker. I'm a huge Gladwell fan and the articles have some of the same ingenious connecting of ideas that I find so rewarding in Gladwell's work. However, because they are short and, to some extent, dated, I would recommend his longer works (Outliers, Blink, David and Goliath) if you are not yet familiar with his writing/thinking.

Pick of the Litter:  Did You Ever Have a Family?

Favorite Passage

". . . wounds can sing a beguiling song."

From Did You Ever Have a Family? by Bill Clegg

Saturday, October 31, 2015

A Change of Direction

After six-plus years of writing mini-reviews of books, I have wearied of the format (or perhaps mostly wearied of my own natterings), so I have decided to change directions. Inspired by Nick Hornby's "Stuff I've Been Reading" column for The Believer, I am going to write on a monthly (or maybe slightly more often) basis about the stuff I've been reading (although I lay no claim to be either as funny or insightful as Hornby). So here's what I've been reading since I last posted.

Red Mist, by Patricia Cornwell
Speaking in Bones, by Kathy Reichs
14th Deadly Sin, by James Patterson

I gave up on Patricia Cornwell several years ago, but found myself listening to Red Mist because I couldn't see anything else on OverDrive (service for downloading audio books through your local library) that appealed and I found it quite a bit better than the last few of her books I had read--not great, mind you, but entertaining enough. In contrast, James Patterson's latest in the Women's Murder Club series has prompted me to scratch that series off my list (the Alex Cross series was scratched off several titles ago). Books that are no more than a set-up for the sequel should be banned!

My Kitchen Wars, by Betty Fussell
Yes, Please, by Amy Poehler

As you know if you have read much of my blog, I am not a fan of memoirs, but I keep reading them--especially chef/cook's memoirs. Betty Fussell's memoir is about food and her marriage--and the stories are interrelated. It's interesting to see how the food she was cooking and the ways in which she and her academic husband entertained evolved over the course of their 20-year union (1949-1971), reflecting changes in the culture. Once they divorced, Fussell's career as a food writer took off, although that piece of her life seems almost an afterthought in My Kitchen Wars. Didn't quite live up to my hopes, but enjoyable enough.

Amy Poehler's memoir is what you would expect from the comedian--funny and charming and a testament to her courage and essential niceness (she is unfailingly kind and loving about her former husband). I enjoyed it more than Tina Fey's similar work--and I think it may be because I listened to Yes, Please while I read Bossypants--humor that feels forced on the printed page comes across better when presented orally. The humorous memoir may be a genre best presented in audiobook.

Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis

I feel virtuous whenever I fill in one of the gaping holes in my reading history, so I am feeling virtuous this morning, having just finished Lewis's scathing satire of small town Midwestern life; his portrayal of the young woman who wants to reform Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, is equally biting. I noted to my son that I often feel like the classics I read could have benefited from a good editor but that I was unsure whether it's because I'm old and don't have time to waste on overlong books or have been corrupted by modern technology that shortens attention span or they are actually just too long. My son pointed out that listening to an audiobook, as I did with Main Street, prevents skimming. So perhaps the classics are not the genre for listening.

Stella Bain, by Anita Shreve
We Never Asked for Wings, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Stella Bain seems to be two separate books forced into one;  the first half is about a Red Cross volunteer in World War I who loses her memory, the second about her child custody battle once she regains her memory. Each could be the basis of a good book, but together they don't work.

We Never Asked for Wings is the second novel from Vanessa Diffenbaugh, whose first, The Language of Flowers, was a runaway bestseller. Diffenbaugh seems to be developing a formula--choose a colorful metaphor (flowers, feathers), create a female character so deeply flawed she could be friends with Amy Dunne, and then send good people who want to help her find her way out of her self-induced misery. Not working for me!

Margaret Atwood is an author I have never taken to--I think Alias Grace is the only one of her books I had previously made it through. I did make it through The Heart Goes Last, a dystopic novel in which people agree to live every other month in prison in exchange for security and free room and board the rest of the time. Although I do not read that much dystopic fiction, The Heart Goes Last seemed unoriginal and contrived to me, and its late-chapters descent into slapstick involving Elvis impersonators did not add to my enjoyment. Margaret Atwood remains on my list of "Highly Regarded Authors I Have Little Fondness for"--and I feel slightly less guilty that she resides there.

And now something I actually liked:  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's much-lauded novel Americanah is a window into Nigeria and the Nigerian diaspora. Ifemelu is the heart of Americanah; we meet her when she is at the hair-braiding salon preparing to return to Nigeria after 13 years in the United States. We then meet the love of her adolescent years, Obinze, who is now a wealthy and unhappily married real estate mogul in Nigeria. As Adichie builds their back stories, she educates us about life in Nigeria and the experiences of African immigrants in the UK (where Obinze lives for several years) and the United States. The story is cleverly enhanced with entries from Ifemelu's popular blog, in which she comments on racial matters from the perspective of a "Non-American Black." While I was disappointed with the ending, I recommend Americanah highly.

Felicity, by Mary Oliver
The Flick, by Annie Baker

Felicity is Mary Oliver's latest poetry collection, celebrating nature and romantic love. As always, Oliver's poems are very accessible and at least some resonate deeply. Recommended if you like poetry or just think you should.

The Flick is a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Set in a run-down theater, The Flick features three characters--a female projectionist and two male employees who clean the theater between shows. Most of the dialogue is the kind of random conversation that occurs between co-workers, sometimes interspersed with long silences (not painful when reading but potentially so when watching the play performed). Yet we also get a sense of the emotional anguish lurking beneath the surface. An enjoyable change of pace.

Pick of the Litter: Americanah

Favorite Passage: 
"I don’t want to lose a single thread

From the intricate brocade of this happiness. . . ."
--From "I Don't Want to Lose," by Mary Oliver

Monday, October 12, 2015

Baking Cakes in Kigali, by Gaile Parkin

Baking Cakes in Kigali is the story of Angel Tungaraza, a Tanzanian woman living in Rwanda, where her husband teaches at a university and the two are raising their five grandchildren because both of their children are "late." Angel is a baker, a creator of fantastic cakes that reflect the individuality of the people they honor. She is also the center of her community, serving as a resource to people with a variety of needs/problems and bringing people together.

Angel's interactions in the community involve her in a variety of significant problems--discrimination against people with "the virus," the aftermath of genocide, crazy government officials, poverty, and more. She deals with each--even as it impinges on her own family--with good cheer and practical advice.

Angel is a delightful character and the book is optimistic--but I actually found that to be a problem in terms of my enjoyment of the book. If Africa's problems could be solved by a good-natured pastry chef, the world would be a better place.  Somehow, however, that just seems like science fiction.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

All the Difference, by Leah Ferguson

Molly is a 30-year-old PR maven living in a house she loves in Philadelphia when she discovers she is pregnant by her handsome and wealthy--but immature--boyfriend Scott. Before she can break the news to Scott, he proposes. The book then progresses in chapters alternating between what will happen if she says Yes and what will happen if she says No. The structure is akin to that of the film Sliding Doors but the book unfortunately is not as clever as the film. Developments in both nraratives are predictable and, in some cases, ridiculous.  Would even the most despicable mother-in-law actually say "I thought only poor people and vegetarians breast feed"?  If so, I guess I must count myself lucky because I haven't known anyone who would say something so ridiculous and insulting. Not recommended.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Housebreaking, by Dan Pope

Audrey Martin, her husband Andrew Murray, and teenage daughter Emily have recently moved to a long-empty farmhouse around which a suburban development has grown.  The Martin-Murrays have fled to this suburban outpost of Hartford, CT, from their previous life in a more upscale suburb of New York in an effort to assuage the grief of losing their son in a car accident. But the move is ultimately disastrous for the family.

We learn the basic outline of the family's move in a prologue. The first section of the book then focuses on the Mandelbaums, neighbors of the Martin-Murrays. Leonard is a widower in his 80s; his son 40-something Benjamin moves in when his wife throws him out. Leonard is set up with a widow; doing push-ups to see if he is fit enough to qualify for a Viagra prescription, Leonard has a stroke. With an empty house available for shenanigans, Benjamin quickly starts an affair with Audrey, with whom he went to high school.  Meanwhile, a series of break-ins plagues the neighborhood. When Emily shows up at Benjamin's house with evidence that she might be involved in the break-ins and acting completely out of control, the book's tone switches (or at least I began to feel apprehension about what was coming).

The narrative then switches to the Martin-Murrays, covering the same time period from the perspectives of the different family members. It becomes clear fairly quickly that Audrey's affair with Benjamin is the least of the family's problems. At his new job in the Hartford office of his law firm, Andrew begins making a series of bad decisions. Paralleling his downward spiral is that of Emily, who (she is a teenager after all) is furious about having to move before her senior year in high school. She, too, makes increasingly terrible decisions, leading to a family crisis.

While the hidden dysfunction in neat suburban communities is hardly a new idea (I have lived in the suburbs for 38 years!), Housebreaking (the title clearly has layers of meaning) held my attention. I really enjoyed Leonard's story, which brought the process of recovering from a stroke to life. When the focus shifted to Andrew and Emily, the book became almost painful (some of the actions/thoughts of male characters, teenage, and adult, made me cringe), yet I wanted to know how they might work their way through their problems. The ending was odd, combining a long-range "wrapped up neatly" conclusion for Emily, a  couple of short-range "wrapped up less neatly" scenes for Audrey, Benjamin, and Leonard, and one offhand phrase about Andrew's future.

Favorite passage:
As he pushed the shopping card down the narrow aisles [of Whole Foods] he noted two distinct types: the wild-haired bohemians who worked there and the middle-aged yuppies who shopped there. Organic food was healthy, yes? So how to explain the unsightly appearance of the patrons--their sallow complexions, their thin and frizzled hair, their shuffling gaits. Many looked like recent victims of accident or disease, limping and wheezing, loading their carts with every sort of vitamin known to the natural world. In Benjamin's opinion they would do better getting a steak and some frozen peas at the Stop & Shop down the street.

The Golden Notebook, by Doris Lessing

Anna Wulf is a Londoner, the author of one fairly successful novel (but who cannot or will not write another book), a divorcee, the mother of a little girl, a Communist, and with her friend Molly a "free woman."  "Free Women" is the title of one section of the narrative, in which Anna's story is told in a more-or-less straightforward manner. The other sections of the narrative are based on the four notebooks that Anna keeps as part of her writing process--the black notebook includes accounts of Anna's life in Southern Rhodesia prior to and during World War II (on which her novel was based); the red notebook recounts her experiences as a member of the Communist Party; the yellow notebook is the text of a novel she is writing, a fictionalized account of an unhappy love affair; and the blue notebook is a conglomeration of notes, dreams, and reflections. At the end of the book, she attempts to bring her writings and her life together in the golden notebook.

The Golden Notebook deals with topics that were not generally spoken of in 1962 when it was published--women's sexuality and menstruation to name just few. While Anna's sexual freedom might lead one to label the book an early feminist novel, I think this would be a mistake, because despite being sexually liberated and a Communist, many of Anna's ideas and habits are in act quite conservative. She hangs a great deal of her mental and emotional health on having a relationship with a man, plays a secondary role in the relationships that seem most important to her, and disdains her homosexual lodgers.

I have read comments from numerous women saying that The Golden Notebook was an important book in their lives. Perhaps because I am reading the book at such a remove from when it was written, I found myself unmoved. I did appreciate the innovative structure, but the actual golden notebook, which I was anticipating would reveal  Anna to some kind of remarkable insight, was disappointing and even confusing. Nonetheless, I feel I am probably not doing The Golden Notebook justice, so I'll include this link to a series of brief reflections on the novel printed to mark its 50th anniversary:

Favorite passage:
I am a person who continually destroys the possibilities of a future because of the numbers of alternative viewpoints I can focus on the present.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Find the Good: Unexpected Life Lessons from a Small-Town Obituary Writer, by Heather Lende

Heather Lende is a writer who lives in Haines, Alaska. One of her jobs is writing obituaries for the local newspaper, experience she drew on when asked to write an essay providing "a piece of wisdom to live by." Turning that essay into this little book--you can read it in an hour or two--she reflects on the lives of people whose obituaries she has written and on episodes in her own life to illustrate the life lesson: find the good, in your life, in the people you know, in the community in which you live, in everything.

The stories Lende tells are funny and moving, covering such events in her own life as her youngest daughter's unplanned premarital pregnancy to her sister's styling of Heather for their father's retirement party in New York. The people whose obituaries she has written represent the kind of people you would expect to find in a small town, with perhaps an added twist of eccentricity found only in Alaska.

While the point Lende makes may not be the most original or philosophically complex, it is certainly worth considering, all the more so because finding the good is not something she came to easily herself. Find the Good is an easy read, but the challenge it lays out may be difficult: find the positive, turn away from the critical, savor your life no matter how big or small.

Favorite passages:
I believe gratitude comes from a place in your soul that knows the story could ahve ended differently, and often does . . .

There is no good in missing someone so badly you can't even hum.

We may not be able to control when children throw up or a spouse leaves us or when one of the altos has a stroke between morning worship and the evening church potluck and won't ever be returning for the dress shoes she left by the coatrack when she pulled on her snow boots. . . . but we can keep on singing. This is how we give each other a little lift on low notes, and a smile on the high ones, or share the effort in those places where staggered breathing is the only way to make it to the end of the day.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Neverhome, by Laird Hunt

Ash Thompson is a pseudonym adopted by the heroine of Neverhome, who leaves her Indiana farm to fight in the Civil War because "I was strong and he [her husband] was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic." Anyone who has ever read anything about the Civil War will be unsurprised to learn that the experience is beyond horrific. But Ash is courageous and resourceful--as well as strong--and manages to survive until she is betrayed by a nurse who helped her recover from a battle wound.

That betrayal leaves her imprisoned in an insane asylum; when she manages to escape, she begins the long walk back to her farm. On the trek, she experiences both kindness and brutality, but her arrival home is also problem-laden, leading to a somewhat bewildering conclusion.

I found the latter half of the book very confusing. Often, I couldn't distinguish between Ash's dreams and reality (perhaps that is because she couldn't either?) or understand why certain things happened (why was she confined to an asylum instead of a prison, since the nurse reported her as a spy?). I look forward to deepening my understanding at our next Novel Conversations meeting and/or at various One Book One Broomfield events, since this is the choice for the 10th year of the program. While the language is often lovely, I would not at this point recommend the book--perhaps if my confusion clears, I'll change my mind.

Favorite passages:
Today I pose questions that deepen silence, rather than conclude it. That is the province of literature, not leadership. (said by a Union officer)

There is shelter and then there is the idea of shelter. Shore up under the second all you want. You still get wet.

Friday, September 25, 2015

A Window Opens, by Elisabeth Egan

As A Window Opens opens, Alice Pearse has a good life. Her husband is an associate at a Manhattan law firm, her three kids are delightful, she has an interesting part-time job at a women's magazine, a wonderful babysitter takes care of her kids when she is working, and her father has survived cancer (albeit with his larynx removed). Her best friend owns an independent bookstore and the two help women pick books to read (literary references are numerous throughout the novel).

Then, everything falls apart. Her husband doesn't make partner, throws his laptop across a conference room when he finds out, and hello solo practice and a lot of beer-guzzling. Alice must get a full-time job--and she finds one at Scroll, a high-tech company that plans to reinvent reading just as Starbucks reinvented coffee. To top things off, her father's cancer returns shortly after she starts the high-stress new job.

Yep, A Window Opens is another examination of women's problem of work-home balance. The descriptions of working at Scroll are satiric and effective--given that Egan once worked at Amazon, one can only assume that they are also accurate. Alice herself is a nice balance of sympathetic and obnoxious (e.g., when she checks her work messages while sitting at the hospital with her desperately ill father). Egan doesn't offer any new insights about work and family and much about the story is predictable, but A Window Opens is an amusing and occasionally touching beach read.

Two gripes: 1. How many times do we have to hear/read the joke about the sixty-something parent who thinks LOL means lots of love? Please--let it go already. 2. Epilogues should not go on and on, not only tying up every loose end by putting bows on them.

Favorite passage:
I was down one parent, but I still had a lot to learn from the one I had left.

When I arrived for my first day of work, visible rays of light crisscrossed through the store, turning the shelves into a rainbow of spines: thick, thin, shiny, matte, striped, printed with small pictures and designs, lettered in gold.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand

Most people know the story that is documented in Unbroken: Louis Zamperini was a wild boy whose energy was eventually channeled into running. He won medals at the Berlin Olympics and was a track star at USC. Once the United States entered World War II, Louis joined the Army Air Corps. His bomber ended up in the Pacific Ocean; incredibly, Louie and his pilot survived on a life raft for a month and a half. Rescued by the Japanese, they became POWs, facing two years of deprivation and cruelty. Louie became the particular target of a sadistic guard known as "Bird."

What happened when the war ended is perhaps less well known (and gets many fewer pages in the book): Louie for several years struggled with flashbacks, nightmares, and other symptoms of PTSD, self-medicating with alcohol. He was saved by an experience with Billy Graham, dedicating the remainder of his life to Christianity and operating a camp for troubled boys.

Reading this book took me almost three months. I know it makes me sound like an inhuman and uncaring person but I was bored. The book is meticulously researched but for me it just felt flat. I was more interested in Louie's life after the war, but that phase of his life was not Hillenbrand's primary focus. Several other members of Novel Conversations LOVED this book and it won numerous prizes and accolades, so I am clearly in the minority. . .not for the first time.

Favorite passage:
The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent upon those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when their tormentors suffer.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, by Jon Krakauer

Jon Krakauer uses Missoula and the University of Montana as a case study of the problem of non-stranger rape in college towns across the United States; he reminds readers, both at the beginning of the book and at the end, that Missoula is typical of such towns--and that is a truly frightening fact.

Within the larger Missoula case study, Krakauer presents in detail the stories of several young women sexually assaulted in that city--what happened on the night they were assaulted, how they decided what action to take in the wake of the assault, how the traumatic experience affected them, how they were treated by the university, the police, the district attorney's office, and ultimately the larger public. Because a number of the assailants were members of the beloved "Grizz" football team, the women were insulted and threatened on fan websites and in person (by people to whom their identities were known).

The handling of rape cases by the Missoula police department and DA's office was problematic enough to prompt a U.S. Justice Department investigation. The police department rather quickly agreed to work with the Justice Department to improve their training and practice. The prosecutor's office resisted, even threatening to sue the Justice Department. If there is an arch-villain in the legal establishment it is Kirsten Pabst, who tried to block publication of the book. Pabst was the head of the criminal prosecutions division of the Missoula County Prosecutor's Office; she often chose not to file charges against accused rapists, claiming insufficient evidence (she also bragged about her conviction rate--but a high conviction rate based on very selective prosecution is nothing to brag about); she even went so far as to testify on behalf of an accused rapist at the university's disciplinary hearing! Pabst then left the MCPO to go into private practice, immediately becoming the attorney for the Grizz's star quarterback, Jordan Johnson, who was accused of sexual assault by a female friend. During the trial, Pabst used all of the attack-the-victim strategies used in rape cases, appealing to the myths common among law enforcement and the public. Following Johnson's acquittal, Pabst ran for and won the district attorney's seat (despite illegal activities on the part of her campaign). It's sad to think she's in that position today.

Krakauer interweaves the stories of these cases with research summaries dispelling many of the myths about rape. Of course, there are people who are unmoved by research or by women's stories and continue to deny that rape on college campuses is a problem. But it is a problem, one fueled by alcohol, a sense of male entitlement, and inadequate education for police, attorneys, and young men and women (I am not blaming the victim, but there are clearly situations young women should not put themselves in--the case studies make that quite evident).

I was going to say you should read this book if you have children or grandchildren approaching college age or work with young people but I think I'll just say: If you're human, READ THIS BOOK.

Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, by Ayelet Waldman

Emilia Greenleaf, the protagonist of Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, is emotionally overwrought. Her daughter Isabel died of SIDS on her first day home from the hospital and Emilia holds herself responsible (although the reader isn't told this immediately, it is fairly apparent). She hates walking by playgrounds or anywhere else there are pregnant women or mothers with young children. She can barely tolerate her five-year-old stepson William who, it must be said, is something of a know-it-all and has a penchant for quoting his mother (who, quite understandably, can't stand Emilia). Emilia's husband Jack, whom she adores and firmly believes is her bashert, is frustrated with her inability to return to any semblance of normalcy following their tragic loss. As her relationship with William deteriorates, Jack becomes ever-more concerned until their marriage reaches a crisis point. A not-entirely-believable happy ending ties everything up neatly.

At times, I asked myself if Waldman intended this book as a satire, but--despite some funny moments--the description of the book on her website suggests that she did not ("With wry candor and tender humor, acclaimed novelist Ayelet Waldman has crafted a strikingly beautiful novel for our time"--okay, it's marketing talk, but it's so off-base it's laughable). It is hard to see how some reviewers think Emilia is a self-aware and sympathetic character. If she were self-aware, would she: punish her father for years for leaving her mother and then make a play for her married boss, insisting they were soulmates, or mock the grief of other bereaved parents taking part in a memorial walk while she herself has been rendered nearly paralyzed by her daughter's death. And there are other examples. Certainly, the parent-stepchild relationship can be difficult, but her behavior towards William, who is, after all, only five, ratchets back and forth from trying too hard to not trying at all; it's despicable (his actual mother's behavior is also questionable). 

The effect that loss of a child can have on a parent (I've been there) and the challenges of trying to make yourself love a difficult stepchild (I haven't been there) are good themes, but Waldman invests her ideas about those themes in a character so immature and self-centered that I found nothing to take away from this book.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Life Class, by Pat Barker

When Life Class opens, Paul Tarrant is literally in a life class, painting a model and evidently not doing it very well, as his professor's critique is scathing. Paul, whose working class father was not supportive of his status as an art student, begins to wonder whether he ought to leave his renowned school ("the Slade"). His friend Elinor Brooke, also a student at the Slade, and her friend Kit Neville, a recent graduate, encourage him to keep working. Paul becomes involved with one of the life class models, Teresa, but her mentally disturbed husband, who comes and goes from her life, eventually breaks up their relationship. At this point, both Kit and Paul are interested in Elinor, but she shows them little beyond friendship and a desire to talk about art.

Then the real life class begins--the Great War. Kit joins the ambulance corps with an eye toward painting the war. Paul tries to enlist but is rejected for medical reasons and he, too, joins the medical corps. Just before he leaves, Elinor's behavior suggests she might be interested in deepening their relationship, and he eventually invites her to visit him in the town near the hospital where he is working. This seems like a ridiculous idea and, indeed, does not end well--but it allows them to sleep together, which seems to be a key development in the plot.

Elinor returns to London and, as evidenced through an exchange of letters with Paul, decides to think as little as possible about the war; art, "the work," is all that she cares about and she is successful, winning prizes, selling some paintings, and being taken into a cultural group modeled after the Bloomsbury Group.  Paul meanwhile sees death and horrendous injuries on a daily basis; indeed, he becomes ill from having a cut in his gloves while working on a patient's gangrenous limb. He is creating art based on his experiences, but he does not understand how Elinor can simply ignore what is happening in the world and, more specifically, what is happening to a man she purportedly loves.

After sustaining a serious injury, Paul returns to London to recuperate. There, he meets with both Elinor, who despite his injury remains uninterested in the war, and Kit, whose war paintings have become a sensation in a form of artistic profiteering. Paul is awash in conflicting feelings . . . and the book ends.

There is much to like about Life Class: it explores interesting questions about art, war, and the relationship between the two; Pat Barker's language is descriptive (in the case of the injuries suffered by soldiers perhaps too descriptive); the device of letters between Paul and Elinor is effective in establishing their attitudes and experiences. Less effective is the depiction of the relationships among the three main characters--Kit, Paul, and Elinor. Elinor and Kit are so self-centered and narcissistic that, while we can imagine why Paul initially sought their company, it is difficult to understand why he continued to do so. In fact, the start of the war is what makes the book come to life, ironic as that may be. Even then, however, I found it difficult to take Elinor's philosophy seriously because it seemed to arise not from deep beliefs but from her own self-centeredness.

I have mixed feelings about Life Class, but I found it interesting enough that I'm probably going to look for Barker's second book about these character's, Toby's Room.

Favorite passage:
In bad weather, as now, the rain pelts down on the corrugated-iron roof with the rattle of machine-gun fire. At the moment it's a real downpour. Waking from their half-sleep, the bundles in the blankets began to stir and cry out in fear. One of the head wounds throws off his blanket, clambers to his feet and, naked, runs between the rows of beds. Two of the orderlies give chase and eventually grab hold of him, one by each arm, and hold him like that, his arms outstretched, a blood-soaked bandage slipping down across one eye.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty, by Amanda Filipacchi

The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty is the story of a group of friends who are struggling with the vagaries of creativity and the pain caused by the culture's overemphasis on physical beauty. Barb is a beautiful woman who dresses in a fat suit, an ugly gray wig, and unattractive false teeth because her best friend, a gifted chef, committed suicide in front of her and cited his unrequited love for her as the reason. Although he has been dead for years, she continues to receive letters from him suggesting that one of her friends has a dark secret. The doorman of her building constantly insults her--in graphic terms--whenever she leaves or enters the building.

Lily has an opposite problem. She is so ugly that the man she adores cannot even imagine being romantically attracted to her. A gifted composer, she tries to compose a song that will make her look beautiful in his--and the world's--eyes.

Their friend Georgia is a novelist who questions her talent. Penelope, who was kidnapped and kept in a coffin for three days, makes and sells ugly pottery, discovering she can make money through an unusual gift--the ability to hide the fact that the pottery is broken. When a customer touches a piece and it "breaks," the customer must buy it. Jack is a former police officer who was injured while rescuing Penelope from her kidnappers and now works part time at a retirement home, pretending to break up fights that the senior citizens stage so he will feel useful.

The group of friends engage in a variety of absurd activities, with some fantastical elements thrown in. One of the blurbs on the book's back cover describes it as a "philosophical farce." It certainly does have a farcical air and I think the author probably intended it as a philosophical examination of beauty, love, and creativity--but the examination is not very deep. It definitely did not resonate with me, but I can see girls in the 13- to 15-year-old range finding ideas worth engaging with.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay

In the final essay in this collection, Roxane Gay says, "I am a mess of contradictions"--and the collection reflects that messiness--in a good, thought-provoking way. Although Gay is also a scholar (she teaches at Purdue), these essays are not in the least academic. They are deeply personal, reflecting the author's experience as a black woman of Haitian descent who likes men but feels compelled to call them on their shit, who loves rap music while despising its misogynistic lyrics, who is a feminist but wants men to handle such gendered tasks as taking out the trash. She states unequivocally in one essay that rape is NEVER fun; in the next essay, she admits she has heard two rape jokes that actually amused her. As a novelist, Gay wants the freedom to write from any perspective she desires, whether that of a white racist or a Latina lesbian, but she resents when white authors (The Help anyone?) appropriate the African American experience. She is, to summarize, real.

The first four essays, gathered into a section titled "[Me]" deals with a variety of topics. She discusses the frustration she felt in working with the black student association, whose members while delightful individuals do not take seriously enough the work that being a college student or a member of an organization requires. She also examines the concept of privilege, which she acknowledges as important; at the same time, she calls for us to discuss privilege without accusation. The final two essays in the section are funny, describing her first year as a college professor and her early days as a competitive Scrabble player.

The remaining sections of the book deal with various aspects of gender, race, politics, and entertainment/art. Each reader is likely to find some essays that resonate more than others. I enjoyed her skewering of Tyler Perry, her examination of the conflict between believing in privacy and wanting gay celebrities to come out, her reflection on happiness in literature. I also respected her willingness to share her own experience as a gang rape victim and how that experience has shaped her--physically and emotionally.

Gay is evidently a prolific blogger and twitterer and her essays definitely feel more more social network than academic journal. Her style is conversational and personally revelatory. I got a bit bogged down in the middle, but I definitely think Bad Feminist is worth reading.

Favorite passages:
Happiness is not a popular subject in literary fiction.We struggle, as writers, to make happiness, contentment, and satisfaction interesting. Perfection often lacks texture.

The Hunger Games trilogy is dark and brutal, but in the end, the books also offer hope--for a better world and a better people and, for one woman, a better life, a life she can share with a man who understands her strength and doesn't expect her to compromise that strength, a man who can hold her weak places and love her through the darkest of her memories, the worst of her damage. Of course I love the Hunger Games. The trilogy offers the tempered hope that everyone who survives something unendurable hungers for.

Deep Down Dark, by Hector Tobar

Deep Down Dark is the story of the 33 Chilean miners trapped hundreds of feet underground for more than two months in 2010. Tobar got the exclusive rights to tell the men's stories; they signed an agreement not to individually tell what happened underground--particularly in the nearly three weeks before people aboveground knew they were alive--and all but one held to the agreement. Those first days and then weeks after the mine collapsed are described in excruciating detail. For those of us who have been in the coal mine at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry--or a similar reconstruction--the size and complexity of the mine and the apparent lack of safety precautions are stunning.

Naturally, immediately following the collapse, the miners are frightened; the shift supervisor abdicates his leadership role, and the group flounders until several men step up to provide leadership regarding specific tasks. One small contingent raids the pitifully inadequate food supplies, and only quick action by one of the men saves them all from starvation. As it is, they have almost nothing to eat and lose weight rapidly. While their health suffers from lack of nutrition, the unbearable heat, fungus caused by the damp in the mine, and isolation, the group eventually develops a system by which they manage to get along (for the most part).

After the crews working aboveground successfully drill a hole down to where the miners are trapped, things change. Their physical health improves as they are supplied with food and clean water, but their mental/emotional health and sense of unity suffers, both because they are facing the prospect of being in the mind for several months and because of the tension arising from their sudden celebrity, felt even hundreds of feet below the surface. Contact with family buoys some of the men but seems to sadden others.

Nonetheless, all 33 emerge from the mind alive and considerably earlier than the "by Christmas" they had initially been warned to expect. While the early days in the mine were horrendous, equally sad is how little was done to help the men adjust psychologically after they returned home. Family members often told Tobar that the man who came out of the mine was not the same one who went in. The media attention only exacerbated many of the men's problems. While some were returning to "normal" life when Tobar ends the story about a year after their rescue, others were still struggling mightily.

Deep Down Dark focuses primarily on the men in the mine. Some aspects of their families' stories and the story of the rescue are also covered, but the 33 men are the heart of the book. Because I was listening to the book and I don't speak Spanish, I found it difficult to keep straight who the different "characters" were--but in the end that didn't really matter. While the horrific details of the men's stories draw you into the story, the larger questions keep you thinking: How and why is faith helpful when people are facing terrible circumstances? How do leaders emerge and gain the support of the larger group (one miner saw himself as a leader but was not necessarily regarded in the same way by his colleagues)? How does celebrity affect everyday people who are thrust into the limelight through events out of their control? How do you recover from an experience so devastating?

Sometimes a difficult book to read, but definitely worthwhile.

Favorite passages:
It seems silly to Franklin [a former member of the Chilean national soccer team] for his fellow miners to think of themselves as national heroes when all they've done is gotten themselves trapped in a place where only the desperate and the hard up for cash go to suffer and toil. They are famous now, yes, but that heady sense of fullness that fame gives you, that sense of being at the center of everything, will disappear quicker than they could possibly imagine. Franklin tries to speak this truth to his fellow miners, but he does so halfheartedly, because he knows the only way to learn it is to live it.

If you make a man a symbol of things that are bigger than any one person can possibly be, you risk stripping that man of his sense of who he really is.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons

Cold Comfort Farm was on my list of books to read for 10 years before Novel Conversations chose it and I finally actually read Gibbons' parody of rural English novels. The heroine of the book is Flora Poste, a young woman whose parents have died and left her with no resources. Although her friend Mrs. Smiling encourages her to get a job (gasp!), Flora instead writes to every relative she can unearth asking if she can stay with them. The only takers are the Starkadder family of Cold Comfort Farm in Sussex, who feel indebted to her because of some wrong done to her father in the past.

She arrives at Cold Comfort Farm to find a bizarre collection of relatives, all of whom she decides she can help to escape the farm or their problems, leaving the farm to the one cousin who really wants to be a farmer. She manipulates the fire-and-brimstone preacher to leave the farm to spread the word in a Ford truck. She makes sure the lovely and fey cousin can marry the son of the local landowner rather than being forced to wed the filthy Urk. She arranges for the libidinous and movie-loving Seth to be discovered by a Hollywood producer. And on and on.

At times, even without intimate familiarity with the books being parodied, Cold Comfort Farm is amusing. But the humor is extremely broad, the plot and characters unbelievable, and the depiction of rural characters somewhat offensive--meaning Cold Comfort Farm wears thing very quickly.

No one at our book group meeting last night really liked the book, although some thought it was funnier than others did (I think the highest grade it got was a C+). While the Brits still include it on Top 100 lists, Broomfielders are less impressed.

Favorite passages:
Flora sighed. It was curious that persons who lived what the novelists called a rich emotional life always seemed to be a bit slow on the uptake.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Hundred-Foot Journey, by Richard C. Morais

I had heard that the movie based on The Hundred-Foot Journey was not very good, but I hoped that the book might--as often is the case--be better. The book is the story of Hassan Haji, a boy whose Muslim family was forced out of India following partition (and an attack on their family home that resulted in his mother's death). Like many Indian emigres, they went first to London but eventually settled in a small village in France, Lumiere. The family decides to start an Indian restaurant right across the street from a French restaurant where a renowned chef, Madame Mallory, rules. The family clashes with Madame Mallory but she eventually realizes that Hassan is a gifted chef and takes him into her kitchen to train him in French cuisine. That starts his rise to the highest levels of the French culinary world.

The part of the book in which Hassan is still ensconced in his family is lively, as the family is full of characters and there is a bit of the classic "stranger in a strange land" plot. When he starts his ascent as a chef, however, the story falls flat. Although Hassan is purportedly passionate about food, the reader gets no authentic sense of passion or excitement. Consequently, whether or not he achieves his third Michelin star is a matter of utterly no concern.

Not recommended.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Killing Monica, by Candace Bushnell

Lesson learned from listening to Killing Monica: Always check the reviews before using an Audible credit on a terrible book!

Friday, August 28, 2015

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

Alexandra Bergson, the protagonist of O Pioneers! is an intelligent and resilient young woman. Her father, who is dying as the book opens, recognizes these characteristics and informs her brothers that, while all the siblings will share the family's Nebraska farm upon his death, Alexandra will be in charge. Her brothers acquiesce although, when things go badly and many of their neighbors are leaving for jobs back in Chicago or St. Louis, they are unhappy with her plan to mortgage the farm to buy more land.

Flash forward sixteen years, and Alexandra has been proved right. Her brothers now have their own farms and all are doing well. Then her youngest brother Emil returns from college in Lincoln and Alexandra's childhood friend Carl passes through their town on his way to Alaska to look for gold. Romance abounds, but not entirely happily. Carl ends up staying longer than planned and Alexandra and Carl's relationship deepens, but her older brothers fear Carl is only interested in stealing their family's land. Emil meanwhile starts a flirtation with a married neighbor, Marie Shabata. Eventually, Emil leaves for a job in Mexico and Carl heads for Alaska, promising to come back when he is established enough not to look like a fortune-hunter. Alexandra spends a lonely winter alone on the farm.

The next spring, Emil comes back home and once again spends more time than is wise with Marie, whose husband Frank is a hothead. When the worst happens, Carl hastens back to comfort Alexandra.

When you summarize O Pioneers! like that, it sounds like a melodrama and, to some extent, it is. But Cather's amazing sense of place and her respect and empathy for the women who scratched out a living on the Great Plains at the turn of the 20th century elevate the book. As with My Antonia, I did not love this book but I think it is well worth reading.

Favorite passages:
Isn't it queer: there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country that have been singing the same five notes for thousands of years.

She had never known before how much the country meant to her. The chirping of the insects down in the long grass had been like the sweetest music. She had felt as if her heart were hiding down there, somewhere, with the quail and the plover and all the little wild things that crooned or buzzed in the sun. Under the long shaggy ridges, she felt the future stirring.

Freedom so often means that one is needed anywhere.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Elizabeth Is Missing, by Emma Healey

Elizabeth Is Missing is a terrifying book--not because it has to do with the disappearance of two women 70 years apart but because it is told from the perspective of an 80-ish woman named Maud, who is suffering from dementia that is gradually worsening. Maud is convinced that her friend Elizabeth is missing--after all, she doesn't answer the door or pick up phone calls. But no one will listen to Maud because her grip on reality is becoming less and less reliable and her behavior more and more erratic. Her inability to figure out what has happened to Elizabeth becomes entwined in her mind with the disappearance of her sister Sukey in the 1940s, a mystery unsolved for 70 years.

At the beginning of the book, Maud is frustrated by both her faltering memory and the fact that no one takes her seriously. She tries to use such coping strategies as writing herself notes--but the notes are easily jumbled as well, with notes from weeks ago and just minutes ago stuck in the same pocket. As her mental condition deteriorates, she becomes terrified of what is happening and her frustration occasionally turns to rage.

While we do learn what happened to both Elizabeth and Sukey, it is what happens to Maud that really matters. Of course, it's impossible to say what it is like to be in the head of someone with dementia, but Healey's depiction seems all too real. For those of us old enough to be worrying about dementia, Elizabeth Is Missing may be too scary to contemplate. For someone dealing with a loved one with dementia, however, the book might be an excellent (and entertaining) way to gain some insight into what that might be like.

Favorite passage:

I forget things--I know that--but I'm not mad. Not yet. And I'm sick of being treated as if I am. I'm tired of the sympathetic smiles and the little pats people give you when you get things confused, and I'm bloody fed up with everyone deferring to Helen [her daughter] rather than listening to what I have to say.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Life from Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Forgiveness, by Sasha Martin

I LOVED Julie and Julia, which started me reading books based on cooking blogs. Sadly, as yet none have had the entertainment value of Julie Powell's very funny book. Life from Scratch is anything but funny. Although the author had a culinary goal not unlike Powell--she decided to cook and blog about food from a different country every week until she had made her way through all 195 countries on earth--her book is more similar to The Glass Castle than to Julie and Julia.

Sasha Martin had a very difficult childhood; she was let down by her parents, the social welfare system, and the surrogate parents with whom she went to live at the age of 10. One of her siblings died in tragic circumstances. She got into some trouble in her teenage years, but it is somewhat miraculous, given all she went through, that she pulled herself together, graduated from a top college, and built a meaningful life for herself--despite her ongoing struggle to find where she belongs in the world. It is perhaps helpful to others who have suffered through terrible years as children to read about another's struggle and eventual triumph. It is probably helpful for Martin to share her story and be heard. I'm sure I sound cold and heartless, but I feel like I have read this story too many times.

Sounding cold, heartless, and shallow, I did enjoy the book more when she began to write about her Global Table Adventure and her effort to use food as a way to create peace, within herself, her home, and beyond. The ways in which her research, cooking, eating, and sharing affected her are, for me, the most interesting part of the book. I doubt I will try any of her recipes, but I enjoyed reading about her preparation of them.

Favorite passage:

For dessert, we head to the kitchen to make koko Samoa--Samoan rice pudding. First, I steam the rice. In another pot, I plunk a few chocolate squares into coconut milk. As the two slump together, I zest in a heavy orange. The citrus oil mists my hand and glistens on the brown surface before my spoon folds it deeper into the pot. I draw a breath. Bitter zest might not sweeten the mix, but it does deliver a gust from the rambling orchard in which it once grew.

METAtropolis, edited by John Scalzi

METAtropolis is a collection of five speculative fiction novellas, each written by a different author (Elizabeth Bear, Tobias Buckell, Jay Lake, Karl Schroeder, and the editor John Scalzi) but taking a common vision of the evolution of cities as their focus. The first story ("In the Forests of the Night," by Jay Lake) is the weakest and almost prevented me from listening to the rest of the book. It features a charismatic man, Tyger Tyger, who enters Cascadiopolis (the cities of the Pacific Northwest) with the intention of taking over the city; at the same time, several other characters have plots of their own. Yet none of it really comes together.

The next two stories--"Stochasti-City" by Tobias Bickelle and "The Red in the Sky Is Our Blood" by Elizabeth Bear--are both set in Detroit and feature loner characters, a man in the former, a woman in the latter. Both characters are interesting and their eventual joining of groups that are working outside the established system to set up alternative societies allow the reader to consider ideas about how human interactions might occur in this dystopic world.

Editor Scalzi's story, "Utere Nihil Non Extra Quiritationem Suis" takes a different approach--looking at the options for a slacker living within the established system of New St. Louis. Benjy ends up working in a high rise pig farm--not the kind of job anyone grows up dreaming of. A friend who is living in the lawless suburbs tries to draw Benjy into a rebellion, and the results are entertaining.

The final story, "To Hie from Far Cilenia" by Karl Schroeder, imagines worlds within worlds--virtual realities where many people choose to live (or cannot figure out how to escape). A policeman is haunting the worlds searching for people who have stolen plutonium, accompanied by a woman who is looking for her son. The idea is interesting but perhaps a bit farther out than my limited imagination can go.

I would never have picked up METAtropolis if I hadn't had a $10 coupon on Audible (sometimes you have to go outside your comfort zone to find something for less than $10), but I thought the concept was intriguing and found several of the stories engaging and thought-provoking. They deal with a variety of issues, most notably environmental protection (in "Stochasti-City" a group is trying to turn Detroit into a car-free city), but also technology transfer, conflict between haves and have-nots, domestic violence, collective child-rearing, and alternative economic systems. Perusing the reviews on Amazon, I note that some reviewers find the liberal slant irritating; as a liberal, I found it wise!

Favorite passage:

Hope was not dead, but it lived in strange isolated colonies on the warm corpse of the United States.

Friday, August 21, 2015

One Hundred Names, by Cecelia Ahern

This book has an interesting premise: a respected magazine editor dies, leaving her protege, the recently disgraced Kitty Logan, her last story idea to complete. Unfortunately for Kitty, the idea is a list of 100 names with no explanation of how they are related. Unfortunately for the reader, Kitty is an unlikeable character, her redemption is unbelievable, and Ahern's "message" is mundane (everyone has a story worth hearing). Not recommended.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Hard Choices, by Hillary Rodham Clinton

I decided to read Hard Choices in the hopes that it would make me like Hillary Clinton more than I previously did. Her account of her years as the Secretary of State certainly affirms her sharp intelligence, her command of a wide range of issues, and her unflagging energy (just reading about her schedule made me tired). It convinced me that she loves her daughter fiercely, truly believes in the ethic of public service, and is loyal--to her staff and, despite everything, to Bill. She also cares about many of the same issues I care about. These are all positive things.

I also inferred that she doesn't have much of a sense of humor (she occasionally tries to crack a joke, but I don't remember laughing at any point in the 500+ pages of the book). She's quicker to consider military intervention than I would like the President to be and has more of an exceptionalist view of the United States (though she doesn't use that term) than I expected. She has an annoying habit of quoting her own speeches and telling the reader how long she's been friends with this or that eminent person. Too often (and this may reflect my own ignorance more than anything about the author), I felt diplomacy as she described it was modestly disguised bullying.

Would I recommend the book? Only to foreign policy devotees. I think the average reader would find it pretty dull. Do I like her better? Welllllll, not really--though I don't like her any less either.

Favorite passage:
Our choices and how we handle them shape the people we become. For leaders and nations, they can mean the difference between war and peace, poverty and prosperity.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Light of the World: A Memoir, by Elizabeth Alexander

It's ironic that I, who have been unhusbanded for more than half of my adult life, seem to have a thing for widow's memoirs, this being the fifth I have read in the past few years. But Elizabeth Alexander is a different writer than Didion, Braestrup, Oates, and Jamison because she is a poet and her memoir, while mostly written in what appears to be prose, feels like an extended poem. The poetic language made me care little about the order in which she took on events and emotions surrounding the death of her husband Ficre, an Ethiopian-born artist and chef, shortly after his 50th birthday. Indeed, she plays with time from the very first chapter of her book, starting it "The story seems to begin . . ."; several other chapters in the book's first section start similarly, with "The story begins." The multiple starting points allow Alexander to weave together the stories of their mothers' coterminus pregnancies, their childhoods, their meeting, and their life with their two sons, leading up to Ficre's sudden death.

After his death, Alexander's story is not notably different from that of other women who have lost their life partners--deep grief, dislocation and confusion, and pain, so much pain. She often dreams of her husband and believes she sees him in their yard or house; she hopes he might return; but she knows he will not. The short chapters and powerful language make the reader feel not just the loss but the unmooring she experiences. Yet, joy flows through the book as well, memories of the joy she and Ficre shared, sustaining joy within the circle of her family and friends.

If you, too, are drawn to this type of memoir, whether husbanded or not, I recommend The Light of the World.

Favorite passages:
Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy, he [Frederick Douglass] famously wrote. Song raises and bubbles up as the only apt expression of this sorrow, the only possible bulwark against eclipsing grief.

What does it mean to grieve in the absence of religious culture? . . . I am not a black Baptist who will fall out in her grief and be lifted by the hands of her fellow parishioners. I am not an Eritrean woman who goes through the house keening, Ficre hawe, Ficre hawe, which means, Ficre, where are you? But I want rules. I want the prayers to say every day for a year at dusk and I want them to be beautiful and meaningful. I want to sit shiva and have the neighbors come at the end of the week and walk my family around the block, to usher us into the sunlight.

How much space for remembering is there in a day? How much should there be? I think about this in my poetry. I don't want to be a nostalgist. Yet I feed on memory, need it to make poems, the art that is made of the stuff I have: my life and the world around me.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Native Son, by Richard Wright

I read Native Son in college and remember being blown away by Wright's work. Some years later, my son read it and was somewhat less impressed than I had been (as a literary scholar, he tends to approach literature from a different perspective than I). I recently reread the book and find myself landing somewhere between my earlier enthusiasm and my son's critical perspective.

For those who have not read Native Son (or have forgotten the details), it is the story of Bigger Thomas, a 19-year-old African American living on Chicago's South Side in the 1930s. He, his mother, sister, and brother live in one rat-infested room. He spends his days hanging out with friends, drinking, masturbating in movie theaters, fighting, and plotting petty crimes. But a relief agency has arranged a job for him working for the wealthy white Dalton family that fancies itself a benefactor to black people.

He reluctantly goes to the job interview and is hired as a chauffeur. His very first night on the job, he is to drive Mary, the daughter of the family, to a lecture; instead, they pick up her Communist boyfriend Jan, who pressures Bigger to take them to a diner in his neighborhood and to eat at the table with him. Later, they share a bottle of rum with him and all three get somewhat drunk. Bigger finds their friendliness both frightening and infuriating. Upon returning to the family home, he has to help Mary to her room, where he sneaks a kiss from the essentially unconscious Mary. Then her mother (who is blind) enters her room, and Bigger panics, afraid Mary will say something to tell Mrs. Dalton that he is in the room. He puts a pillow over Mary's face to keep her quiet and the inevitable happens.

He disposes of Mary's body and tries to cast suspicion on Jan. Then he gets the idea to ask for ransom and involves his girlfriend in a ransom scheme. He makes a series of ridiculously bad decisions, and his crime is eventually uncovered. He is arrested and held for trial.

The last section of the book covers his time in jail and his trial; through conversations between Bigger and his Communist attorney Max (arranged by Jan) and through Jan's arguments, Wright presents his analysis of the problems of race and class in the United States, describing Bigger's crimes as his desperate attempt to have a meaningful life, a life denied him by the racism, hatred, and discrimination leveled against the working class generally and black Americans in particular. Max provides a stinging critique of white liberals and of America's tolerance for mob violence.

A young James Baldwin wrote disparagingly about Native Son, describing it as reinforcing stereotypes of African Americans, peopled with caricatures rather than characters, and a protest pamphlet masquerading as a novel. To some extent, I agree with these critiques upon my second reading of the novel. The characters are two-dimensional at best, Bigger is a character that few would want to represent their race (or species for that matter), and the last section of the book is essentially a polemic. And yet, I am reminded of my 20-year-old self, who found the book so insightful (okay, I was a bit of a naif, given that it was around 1970 when I read it) and can't help but hope that Native Son might continue to wake up young people to the injustice in our class system and race relations.

Favorite passages:

The white folks like for us to be religious, then they can do what they want to with us.

I beg you to recognize human life draped in a form and guise alien to ours, but springing from a soil plowed and sown by our own hands. I ask you to recognize laws and processes flowing from such a condition, understand them, seek to change them.

My Life in Middlemarch, by Rebecca Mead

English-born, New York-based journalist Rebecca Mead read Middlemarch for the first time as a teenager. Since then, she has reread it approximately every five years--safe to say, it is an important book to her. As she entered mid-life, she decided to write a book about the book and her relationship to it. She researched George Eliot's life, reading her diaries and correspondence, visiting places she had lived, and studying what critics and biographers had to say about her life and work. The resulting book is a blend of biography, critical reading of Middlemarch, and memoir.

From the reviews I had read, I expected My Life in Middlemarch to be primarily memoir, but in fact Mead's own life intrudes only occasionally and never for long. I enjoyed learning more about Eliot's unconventional life and the events that, in Mead's view, shaped her fiction. Her analysis of Middlemarch was more affirming than challenging--I wasn't surprised by any particularly wise reading of the book, but I was prompted to think more about some of the ideas embedded in Eliot's work. And I do feel motivated to read some of her other works, which Mead also touches upon.

I read somewhere that Mead hoped her book would be interesting to people who haven't read Middlemarch. I find that somewhat unlikely, although perhaps if they had read other Eliot works, Mead might provide the motivation they need to tackle Middlemarch. Those who have read that tome will, I think, find My Life in Middlemarch a good read.

Favorite passage:
Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it's a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

What is Novel Conversations reading?

Here's our slate of books for the upcoming months:

August--China Dolls, by Lisa See
September--Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons
October--One Book One Broomfield selection
November--One Thousand White Women, by Jim Ferguson
December--sharing favorite books from childhood and/or best book of the year
January--The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

Leaving Time, by Jodi Picoult

I find it hard to stop reading authors when I have "been with them" throughout their careers, even when their work has become tired/repetitive/etc. (I can do it, but it's a struggle.) Thus, I spent a good bit of yesterday reading this Jodi Picoult novel, which has many of the features of a standard Picoult novel: multiple narrators, a troubled family, and a current issue. The current issue in this case is the protection of elephants--from poachers in Africa and from zoos and circuses in the United States. The information about elephants is fascinating, especially the descriptions of their grieving, which happens to be the research focus of Alice Metcalf, the mother in the troubled family at the center of the story.

Alice disappeared 10 years ago, at the same time that another keeper at the family's private elephant refuge was killed; her husband has been in a mental hospital since. Their daughter Jenna, now 13, has decided to find her mother--or at least find out what happened to her. She enlists the help of a down-on-her-luck psychic and an alcoholic private investigator who had been a cop on her mother's case. The family story is fairly predictable until Picoult throws in a surprise near the end; normally, I like surprises, but because this one had to do with the woo-woo aspects of the story--in general, not my thing--I was quite unhappy. Once the secret was revealed, I could not help comparing the book to a popular movie of which it is quite derivative (I'm not naming the movie to avoid spoiling the book for others, although you might be able to guess--if so, sorry).

So did I like enough things about this book to say I'll read another Jodi Picoult? Perhaps--as long as it doesn't have a paranormal aspect!

Favorite passage:
In the wild we hear the pulsing, guttural musth rumbles of males--deep and low, puttering, what you might imagine if you drew a bow made of hormones against an instrument of anger.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Re Jane, by Patricia Park

Since I was never a big fan of Jane Eyre, it is perhaps surprising that I have in a fairly short span of time read two novels that are essentially retellings of that story. Half American and half Korean, Jane Re is an orphan who knows little about her parents, except that they disgraced her Korean family. Raised by her Korean aunt and uncle in Flushing, Jane is now a recent college graduate unable to find a job in finance. She is so anxious to get away from her uncle's oppressive household (not to mention his bodega Food, where she is expected to work until she finds a job), she signs on as an au pair in the Mazer-Farley household.

Beth Mazer is a college professor and not the most fun or flexible person around. She has prepared a voluminous "Primer" on the family and their practices that Jane must read in order not to make any mistakes in her care of Devin (like letting her have an Italian ice every day after school--gasp!). Beth takes Jane under her intellectual wing, assigning books for Jane to read and spending hours in her attic office (yes, the reference to the crazy wife is pretty obvious) lecturing Jane on feminist literary theories. Ed Farley is a high school teacher working on his dissertation, assigned one drawer in the refrigerator where he can keep the makings for sandwiches he makes for himself (and soon for Jane) every night after Beth and Devin are in bed.

The inevitable happens: Jane and Ed fall in love and Jane runs away to Korea where she learns the truth about her parents and almost marries a student in her English class. However, she eventually returns to New York, her best friend Nina, and Ed. To avoid spoiling the book, I won't reveal more.

Re Jane is essentially chick lit, but the cross-cultural aspect and the author's humor made it enjoyable nonetheless. The 9/11 element, on the other hand, seemed gratuitous. Still, a good beach read.

Favorite Passage:

I realized that was the internal logic of our family: Tear each other down before we step outside and face public humiliation.

Middlemarch, by George Eliot

I feel quite pleased with myself today as I finished listening to Middlemarch. Adding to my smugness is the fact that an old friend, a retired college English teacher, recently admitted she gave up on Middlemarch because there were too many characters (and the professor requiring the book died in the middle of the semester!). Making me feel slightly less self-satisfied is the fact that my son has been telling me to read the book for probably five years; I've had the book on my Kindle or iPad for that entire time and never read a word--only the availability of an audiobook got my going.

Middlemarch, set in the years from 1829-1832, does indeed have many characters and subplots, but four stories seem to have significance:

  • Dorothea Brooke, a bright young woman who chooses to marry an older clergyman because she believes him to be an intellectual whose work she can help with. When, on her wedding trip, she discovers that he has no interest in her help, she is crushed. However, she meets a young man on that same trip, Will Ladislaw, with whom she falls in love; her husband jealously writes in his will that she cannot inherit his property should she marry Will after the husband's death. 
  • Tertius Lydgate, a young doctor with dreams of advancing medicine. He marries the beautiful young Rosamund Vincy, but it is not a happy marriage. Nor does his practice go well; caught up in a scandal involving his wife's uncle, he eventually must leave Middlemarch to start over.
  • Mary Garth and Fred Vincy are a young couple who love each other; Fred, however, is a ne'er-do-well who seems destined to end up in the church, the apparent sinecure for young men of decent breeding but no wealth or particular talent. Mary, however, says she will not marry him if he enters the church, posing the question: What else can Fred do?
  • Nicholas Bulstrode, the afore-mentioned uncle of Rosamund and Fred, is the town banker. Although he puts forth a pious front, he has little empathy for others and has some serious bad behavior in his past. When a man from his past comes to Middlemarch, the resulting scandal has significant ripple effects.
Dorothea's story opens the book and when Eliot suddenly turns to another set of characters with little apparent relation to those who populate Dorothea's world, it is initially confusing--something like acclimating to a Robert Altman film. And, like one of those films, the stories of the diverse characters do eventually intertwine. These stories also reveal different facets of  Eliot's numerous themes; among the most significant of these are the restricted roles of women and the ways in which they respond to those restrictions, the nature of marriage, religion and its functions, the ways in which gossip and social class shape provincial life, and reform in various spheres.

The book is often quite funny, particularly when addressing the question of gender relations. To wit: "And, of course, men know best about everything, except what women know better" and "Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy." 

The third-person omniscient narrator also waxes philosophical with some regularity and many of these passages, which are in essence soliloquies from the author, are worthy of reflection (see Favorite Passages below for some truncated examples). While I could have done with fewer characters and even, perhaps, fewer chapters, I did find Middlemarch well worth the 25+ hours I invested in it (I listened to the Maureen O'Brien version at a slightly accelerated speed). 

Random Notes: The history of Middlemarch is interesting--it started out as two books, one about Dorothea and one about Lydgate. The two eventually were woven into one book that was published in eight parts published over the course of  a year. Published in 1872, the book was a historical novel, a fact often neglected or ignored. 

Favorite passages (too many to note--just a couple samples):
We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time; keep back the tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquiries say, "Oh, nothing!" Pride helps; and pride is not a bad thing when it only urges us to hide our hurts--not to hurt others.

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.

The wit of a family is usually best received among strangers.


Monday, July 20, 2015

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris

Paul O'Rourke is a dentist; he lives in Manhattan, loves the Boston Red Sox but resents the new fans who came to the team after their World Series victory in 2004, and is always searching for something that could be "everything." Damaged by his bipolar father's suicide, he longs to be part of a large close-knit family, like those of his one-time girlfriends (one family was Catholic, the other Jewish) but cannot commit to a relationship. He is an atheist prone to "Hitchensian rants" and treats the women who work for him horribly. In short, he's a sad human being.

Then Paul discovers that someone has created a website for his dental practice; his bio on the website includes strange quotations from a source called the Cantaveticles, apparently a sacred text of unknown origin. Soon, someone is posting comments under Dr. O'Rourke's name on a wide variety of websites. The posts claim O'Rourke is a descendent of the Ulms, ancient enemies of the Jews. Paul spends a great deal of his time on his "me machine" (smartphone) trying to figure out who has appropriated his online identity; eventually, he is drawn into a group of people who believe themselves to be descendents of the Ulms and who make a religion of doubt.

The book is an odd combination of funny (sometimes laugh-out-loud funny) and dull. I had read that the book was about identity theft, a topic I find interesting, but that is not how I would characterize it, which may have affected my response. I admit that whatever point Ferris is trying to make eludes me. For that reason and because the tedious parts of the novel (pretty much anything about the Ulms and religion, real or faux) outweighed the humor for me, I would not recommend To Rise Again at a Decent Hour.

Favorite passage

Baseball is the slow creation of something beautiful. it is the almost boringly paced accumulation of what seems slight or incidental into an opera of bracing suspense. . . . it's the drowsy metamorphosis of the dull into the indescribable.  [Somehow I suspect Ferris thinks this would also describe his novel, but the metamorphosis never quite happened for me.]