Thursday, April 30, 2015

Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline

The Orphan Trains are a little known phenomenon in U.S. history. From 1854 to 1929, approximately 200,000 children from the East Coast--orphans or children whose parents were unable to care for them--were transported by train to the Midwest, where they were taken in by families. Sadly, while some of the children found good homes, many were little more than indentured servants.

Christina Baker Kline's novel follows one of the children who traveled from New York to Minnesota--Niamh (rhymes with Eve). Niamh's first two placements were horrendous, and the descriptions of the abuse and neglect she suffered are heart-rending. In her third placement, she was more fortunate, being adopted by a kind couple; despite the good situation, Niamh never felt truly at home with the Nielsens.

Niamh's story unfolds in parallel with the contemporary story of Molly, a Native American teenager in foster care who starts helping 90-year-old Vivian (Niamh all grown up) go through the lifetime of junk she has stored in her attic. As part of a school project, Molly interviews Vivian about a "portage" experience in her life, and Vivian eventually shares her autobiography with the girl, who then helps her solve some of the mysteries that have plagued Vivian over the years.

While the story of the Orphan Train and Niamh's first years in Minnesota is interesting, the book somehow doesn't come together as a whole. The connection between Vivian and Molly seems contrived, as does the whole "portage" project.  Niamh/Vivian's story is told in present tense, although it is supposedly Vivian's recounting of the events some 80 years later (suggesting it ought to be in past tense). And everything is wrapped up so neatly at the end that it strains credulity.  The book might actually have been more effective if Kline had stuck with the children of the Orphan Train and not complicated matters with the contemporary frame.

Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America, by John Waters

I heard John Waters talking charmingly about his hitchhiking trip from Baltimore to San Francisco on Fresh Air, so I decided maybe his book would be worth listening to, but yikes! Over half the book is made up of two "novellas"--in one, Waters imagines his ideal hitchhiking trip, in the other the most nightmarish trip he can conjure up. Both are sporadically funny and pretty consistently cringe-worthy: all sorts of bodily fluids are being spewed around, goiters are exploding . . . you get the picture. When Waters gets to the actual nonfiction trip, it's pretty dull with Waters showing himself to be whiny and self-absorbed. Major disappointment!

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Sisters, by Nancy jensen

The Sisters is a multi-generational novel that begins in the 1920s and extends to the present day. The sisters in the earliest generation are Mabel and Bertie, who are being "cared for" by an abusive stepfather. The older sister, Mabel, crafts a rather stupid plan for escaping from the stepfather, and the result is a permanent separation of the two sisters. Mabel never marries but becomes a successful photographer with an adopted daughter she saved from an abusive father. Bertie marries, although she never gets entirely over her adolescent love, another casualty of Mabel's escape plan, and has two daughters--Alma and Rainie--who take very different paths, neither of which results in a life that is very rewarding. Rainie has two daughters--Lynn and Grace--who, you guessed it, also share little in the way of sisterly closeness.

I'm not sure why I even finished listening to this book (although I must admit I did fall asleep a couple of times and didn't bother backtracking to listen to what I missed)--the story is ridiculously contrived, the characters one-dimensional (and irritatingly dense), the "surprise" at the end predictable. So not recommended.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

American Pastoral, by Philip Roth

As American Pastoral opens, Roth's alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman is reminiscing about the athletic super star from his Newark High School, Seymour "Swede" Levov, a Jewish boy with Scandinavian good looks. Seymour, from Zuckerman's point of view, has had a charmed life--he starred in three sports at school, served briefly in the Marines during World War II, married a former Miss New Jersey, took over his father's lucrative glove business, and moved into a beautiful home in Old Rimrock. A dinner with Seymour, in which he talked incessantly about his three sons, shakes Zuckerman's heroic view of the man but it is not until he runs into his old friend Jerry, Seymour's younger brother, at a class reunion that he realizes his view of Seymour is completely wrong.

As Zuckerman learns from Jerry, Seymour has recently died of prostate cancer; more startling is the fact that, at the age of 16, Seymour's daughter Merry bombed the local general store and post office, killing a doctor dropping off a letter on his way to work. That event created a cataclysm in Seymour's life and a nearly equal disruption in Zuckerman's perspective. Realizing how profoundly wrong his version of Seymour's story was, Zuckerman decides to reimagine Seymour's life using the new information he gained from Jerry. That reimagining is the second part of the book, and it is a powerful story of how the  tumult of the 1960s affects one upper middle-class family--his wife Dawn's evolution causes her to reject her beauty queen past, race riots in Newark cause labor problems in the glove business, his stuttering daughter's rebellion turns to violent protest against the war in Vietnam.

After the bombing Merry disappears, Dawn suffers a breakdown, and Seymour is extorted by a young woman claiming to be in contact with Merry (he also has an affair, which we don't learn about until late in the story). Five years later, he finally finds Merry who has become a practitioner of Jainism and lives in squalor in Newark. She reveals facts about her time on the run that shake Seymour to his core: that the bombing in Old Rimrock was not her last and that she was raped multiple times. The evening--and story--end with an anguished Seymour trying to hold it together at a dinner party thrown by his wife. (We never learn how that Seymour became the older mundane Seymour bragging about his sons.)

Roth is a master, and both parts of the novel are both thought-provoking and emotionally engaging. While many novelists have used the class reunion as a plot device, those efforts usually feel contrived; Roth's reunion is revelatory, both for Zuckerman and the reader. What goes on in the life of the heroes of our youth? We don't know--and, in truth, never really will. But with our eyes opened, we can imagine the connection between those lives and the events we all have experienced.  Sadly, Roth's sex scenes still make me cringe, as does his attitude toward women. Nonetheless, American Pastoral is definitely worth your time.

Favorite passages:
The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It's getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That's how we know we're alive; we're wrong.

Yes, alone we are, deeply alone, and always, in store for us, a layer of loneliness even deeper.

. . . all that rose to the surface was more surface.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson

Sisters Ruthie  (the book's narrator) and Lucille are the heart of Housekeeping. As very young children, the two were brought by their mother back to her hometown of Fingerbone, Idaho, and left on their grandmother's porch with the admonition to wait for their grandmother. Meanwhile, their mother drove her car over a cliff into a lake, executing a rather spectacular suicide. The girls' grandfather had drowned in the very same lake years ago, the victim of a train derailment. Their grandmother had been left to raise her three daughters alone, and now she has been left to raise her granddaughters.

Ruthie and Lucille are close and their lives are fairly stable until their grandmother dies, leaving them in the care of two maiden great-aunts who are afraid to venture out of the house, making them ill-equipped to care for two young girls. After a year, they hand the girls off to their aunt Sylvie, their mother's sister who has been living the life of a transient. Considering that Sylvie rarely takes her coat off, fills the house with tin cans she saves for no apparent reason, and wanders the countryside by both day and night, her presence does not provide the girls with a sense of security. Indeed, as Ruthie becomes a teenager, she is less and less able to tolerate the "housekeeping" Sylvie practices and seeks shelter with her home ec teacher. Having lost her ally, Ruthie begins to adjust her own habits to Sylvie's; she rarely goes to school and the two behave erratically enough to draw attention from the authorities, who want to remove Ruthie from Sylvie's care. The two leave Fingerbone behind, returning to Sylvie's life on the road.

Housekeeping is a story of loss and impermanence and, because its central characters are children, it's ineffably sad. Robinson's language is formal and the ideas she explores are complex, creating a bit of a disconnect between the age and education level of the narrator and the narration itself--but that disconnect does not really matter. What matters is what Robinson tells us about the human condition in her elegant and beautiful prose.

Housekeeping is a book with an interesting history. Upon its publication in 1980, it received a rave review in the New York Times and was nominated for and/or won various prizes, becoming an instant classic. People waited eagerly for Robinson's second novel, but it was a long wait. She didn't publish Gilead until 2004 but has published two more novels since.

Favorite passages:
We had been assured by our elders that intelligence was a family trait. All my kin and forebears were people of substantial or remarkable intellect, though somehow none of them had prospered in the world. Too bookish, my grandmother said with tart pride, and Lucille and I read constantly to forestall criticism, anticipating failure. If my family were not as intelligent as we were pleased to pretend, this was an innocent deception, for it was a matter of indifference to everybody whether we were intelligent or not.

[E]very memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long.

It was a source of both terror and comfort to me then that I often seemed invisible — incompletely and minimally existent, in fact. It seemed to me that I made no impact on the world, and that in exchange I was privileged to watch it unawares.

Blue Horses, by Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver's poems generally blend observations of nature and spiritual questions in language that is descriptive yet elegant. Some of the works in her current collection, Blue Horses, reflect her customary concerns, including her penchant for poems about birds. But she also branches out to the experiences of falling in love as an older woman, illness, and art (in the title poem she imagines stepping into a Franz Marc painting). She also writes about angels, stones, and not mowing the grass.  On the other hand, she mostly eschews the political poems that her Red Bird collection featured (see review at

Oliver writes in a variety of forms, which I am too unschooled to name. In one of my favorite poems, "No Matter What," each of the three stanzas (of various lengths) begins with a line in which only the verb varies: "No matter what the world claims,"  "No matter what the world preaches," No matter what the world does."  In each stanza, she recounts things that don't vary with time--the changing of the seasons, the laughter of children at play, the first kiss, the blooming of flowers, the first death--closing with a line that varies only in its adjective:  "And the flighty sweetness of rhyme," "And the wholesome sweetness of rhyme," "The sorrowful sweetness of rhyme." It's quite lovely and I enjoyed not only the poem but the challenge to think about different aspects of something (sweetness) that might normally seem rather unvarying.

As I say with nearly every poetry collection I read, not every poem in Blue Horses moved me, but there are enough captivating images and language to make the volume worth picking up.

Favorite passage:
"What We Want"

In a poem
people want
something fancy,

but even more
they want something
made plain,

easy to swallow--
not unlike a suddenly
harmonic passage

in an otherwise
difficult and sometimes dissonant

even if it is only
for the moment
of hearing it.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Mating, by Norman Rush

In the early 1990s, when Mating was first published, a group of young women in my office had a book group that became somewhat obsessed with the book, quoting it to an extent that became, well, annoying to those of us not in the book's thrall. These young women were around 30, well-educated, intelligent, articulate--much like the nameless narrator of the novel. They did not, however, trek across Africa in search of their ideal mate. But I digress before I have even started.

At the beginning of Mating, the narrator is living in the capital of Botswana, at loose ends because she has been forced to abandon her research for her dissertation in anthropology because her hypothesis was utterly unsupported by the evidence. She has discovered that she can make a living by acting as something of a freelance docent, helping expats understand the culture in which they find themselves. She has had a series of unsatisfying relationships and is looking for someone she can connect with on an intellectual level.

Then, she encounters Nelson Denoon, a dashiki- and headband-wearing intellectual who, she has heard, is working on a secret development project in a remote village called Tsau. Despite being married, he displays some interest in the narrator and, when he returns to Tsau, she decides to follow him, setting off on an insane solo journey across the Kalahari Desert to pursue Denoon. She arrives in Tsau and launches her campaign to win Denoon in an unusually intellectual and wordy romantic campaign.

As Nelson and the narrator build their relationship debating socialism, development economics, biology, literature, and everything else under the sun,  she becomes part of the Tsau community. Ironically, Tsau has been designed as a female-run African collective dominated by a white male from outside the culture--a situation destined to eventually cause trouble. And, indeed, as the community evolves, trouble for Denoon arrives. While in denial about his changing status in the community, Denoon does undergo changes that throw his relationship with the narrator into chaos.

Mating is a lengthy book, and, throughout, the author demonstrates an amazing vocabulary (if I had looked up every word that was unfamiliar, I'd still be sitting at my dictionary) and impressive breadth of knowledge. He invents amusing word games that Denoon and the narrator play for their own and our amusement. While this produces some fascinating discussions, it also produces some long, tedious sections. While I enjoyed the narrator's humor and adaptability early in the book, over the course of 500 pages, she began to wear on me--her neurotic personality (when confronted with situations she does not understand, she generates lists of unlikely explanations, torturing herself with the uncertainty), admitted self-centeredness, and willingness to subjugate herself to Denoon. At some point, I began to look forward to the ending, which ended up not making a lot of sense to me--though it did demonstrate the narrator retained her resourcefulness.

Am I glad I finally read Mating? Yes. Will I quote it obsessively? Absolutely not. Would I recommend it?  In a qualified way--give it a try; you may find yourself among the book's many devoted fans. If not, do not feel bad about letting it go--the latter part of the book does not hold startling insights about mating, development, feminism. In essence, it holds more, lots more, of the same.

Favorite passages:
We all love hubris in a mate, but we prefer it in moderation.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

She Walks in Beauty: A Woman's Journey Through Poems, edited by Caroline Kennedy

Caroline Kennedy seems to have approached collecting the poems in this volume as a task to help cope with the onset of middle age, looking both back and forward and using poetry to "weave the choices we have already made into the changes we want to bring to our lives." The book is organized into sections that represent the phases of a woman's life, as well as aspects of our lives that define who we are: falling in love; making love; breaking up;  marriage; love itself;  work; beauty, clothes and things of this world; motherhood; silence and solitude; growing up and growing old; death and grief; friendship; and how to live. It was intriguing to read that Kennedy found two sections for which the number of poems available was smaller than she expected: work and friendship.

This is not my favorite collection of poems--perhaps too many "classics" for my taste--though I certainly found a number of works I enjoyed or was inspired by. However, what I found really interesting was thinking about what sections I would organize such a work into. I'm quite sure I'd have fewer sections devoted to love-related topics and more, perhaps, to childhood, family, and other activities through which we give meaning to our lives. And, one might ask, would the sections be different for a book about a man's journey through poems? Fun mental exercise.

Favorite passages (that were new to me in this collection)

. . . from what we cannot hold the stars are made.
From "Youth," by Osip Mandelstam, translated by W.S. Merwin

I watch  my son's face like a clock;
he is the time I have.
If I choose this window, this black-and-white notebook,
I must appear to be what I am:
a woman who has chosen a table
between her sleeping child
and the beginning of everything.

Fron "At the Cafe," by Patricia Kirkpatrick

"Summer with Monica," by Roger McGough
Away from you
I feel a great emptiness
a gnawing loneliness

with you
I get that reassuring feeling
of wanting to escape

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Faraway Nearby, by Rebecca Solnit

When I checked The Faraway Nearby out of the library, I thought it was a memoir of Solnit's experiences as her mother descended to the depths of Alzheimer's and then died. At first, the book matched my expectations, with Solnit using a mountain of apricots given to her by her brother just as their mother was having a health crisis as a symbol for stories of the unripe, the ripening, and the rotting. But then suddenly Solnit is on her way to Iceland, riffing on the story of Frankenstein and the family history of its author. As the book progresses, she occasionally returns to her mother's story and recounts her own experience with illness, but mostly she reflects on stories that were meaningful to her during this period. In fact, she describes the book as "a history of an emergency and the stories that kept me company then." These stories range from the life of Buddha, to Che Guevara's radicalizing time at a leper colony, to Icelandic myths (there is even a mini-essay about moths that drink the tears of sleeping birds running along the bottom of the pages)--and the meanings of these stories for Solnit and others--the "questions about how to tell and how to listen"--are the real focus of the book.

Frankly, I had simply no idea what meaning to give many of the stories Solnit tells and retells. Indeed, I struggled with The Faraway Nearby--I had to renew it twice, which is a fairly unusual occurrence. Several times I asked myself, "Why am I continuing to slog through this odd conglomeration of stuff?" But then I would come across something that set off a "ping" of recognition, making the struggle worthwhile. For someone who is has a less prosaic turn of mind, I can imagine this book being very rewarding. For others more like me, perhaps a "pick-and-choose" approach to reading the book would be a better use of time.

Favorite passages:
I talked about places, about the ways that we often talk about love of place, by which we mean our love for places, but seldom of how the places love us back, of what they give us. They give us continuity, something to return to, and offer a familiarity that allows some portion of our own lives to remain connected and coherent. They give us an expansive scale in which our troubles are set into context, in which the largeness of the world is a balm to loss, trouble, and ugliness.

Books are solitudes in which we meet.

. . . we imagine that gifts put us in the giver's debt, and debt is supposed to be a bad thing. You see it in the way people sometimes try to reciprocate immediately out of a sense that indebtedness is a burden. But there are gifts people yearn to give and debts that tie us together.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

When the Killing's Done, by T.C. Boyle

When the Killing's Done is a darkly ironic tale based on actual events involving the Channel Islands off the California coast. The book opens with a gripping account of a 1946 shipwreck--newlyweds Beverly and Till Boyd, along with Till's brother Warren, sail out of Santa Monica for some weekend R&R; then bad weather hits, the boat capsizes, and only two-month-pregnant Beverly survives. She washes up on the shores of the island of Anacapa--and then must survive a week beset by the rats that have overtaken the island, survivors of a much earlier shipwreck.

Decades later, Beverly's granddaughter Alma Boyd Takasue is taking on the rats. An ecologist working for the National Park Service, she is heading up an effort to kill off the invasive species (rats) so the native birds can thrive. Once that is accomplished, she plans to move on to eliminating the feral pigs that are ruining the ecology of another island, Santa Cruz. Among the animal activists opposing the National Park Service efforts to restore the islands' ecosystems through massive extermination campaigns is Dave LaJoy, a rage-fueled misanthrope. (Dave's name is as ironic as Alma's pregnancy as she heads up a hunting campaign that leads dead pigs festering across Santa Cruz.) Dave's early efforts are designed to thwart the NPS--e.g., by feeding the rats vitamin K, which will counteract the poison the NPS plans to drop on the island to kill the rats. As his schemes go ever more horribly wrong, he turns to more of a prankster campaign, introducing other species to the islands--but his luck remains spectacularly bad.

Boyle intersperses the story of the escalating conflict between environmentalists and animal lovers with back story on Alma's mother, the child shipwreck survivor Beverly produced, and Dave's girlfriend Anise, who lived on one of the islands as a child;  an account of another couple who were killed in a boating accident that seemed completely unrelated to anything else in the book (obviously, I missed something); and background on the ecological issues on the islands.

I actually learned a lot from this book, which I also found bleakly entertaining (if that is possible). The ethical issues raised were clear, although they might have been more compelling had Dave been given some tiny modicum of humanity.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Hundred-Year House, by Rebecca Makkai

For the first few chapters, I thought The Hundred-Year House was going to be a humorous novel about a young couple who can't quite get it together. Doug and Zee are living in the carriage house of her mother Grace's mansion. Both are academics, but Doug doesn't have a job. Instead, he is supposedly working on a book about the poet Edwin Parfitt, who at stayed at the mansion decades ago when it was an artists' colony. In reality, however, Doug is picking up some much-needed cash by writing books for a series  aimed at middle school girls and scheming as to how he can get into the mansion's attic to access the files from the colony--both activities unknown to Zee. Meanwhile, Zee's stepfather Bruce is stockpiling supplies for the disaster he anticipates when Y2K hits, and he invites his son Case and daughter-in-law Miriam to live in the second carriage house apartment because Case is also out of work.

Then the book takes a turn for the dark. Zee launches a scheme of her own to open up a teaching job for Doug at the university where she teaches by planting pornography on a colleague's computer. Case endures a series of accidents as soon as he arrives at the estate. His wife Miriam, a mosaicist, is affected by the ghost of Zee's great-grandmother Violet, a longstanding myth of the property. Miriam and Doug become increasingly close, hatching a plot to make an assault on the attic archive. The characters go from amusingly directionless to alarmingly unmoored. Yet, when things come to a head, the outcome is not as bad as I feared--and we're only half way into the book.

The second half starts a generation earlier, in 1955, when Grace was newly married to her first husband, George. In successively shorter sections, we get a glimpse of two even earlier time periods--shortly after World War I when the artists' colony was hosting Edwin Parfitt and in 1900 (coyly ending the book with a section "Prologue") when the ghostly Violet is being brought to the mansion to part her from her lover in the family's home base of Toronto. Each of these sections uncovers secrets and reinventions that would have stunned Doug and Zee had they understood the history underlying Doug's research and Zee's life.

Makkai has a gift for creating characters who at first appear to be eccentric and then show the less endearing side of that eccentricity (remember the librarian in The Borrower?); unfortunately, some of the characters then become close to caricature. The backward chronology she employs in this novel works as a way of conveying the theme of reinvention--after all, if you aren't who you think you are, why not reinvent yourself?  But by the end, I found myself expecting the twists before they came--perhaps there are a few too many. Overall, I'd give The Hundred-Year House a mixed review--some interesting characters, an innovative structure, a compelling theme, but it doesn't quite come together.

Favorite passage
By then there had been other men. She'd flung herself at other closed windows. The windows never broke, but her heart, at the end, was in splinters.