Saturday, April 30, 2016

April: Month of Blizzards and Books

When it's supposed to be spring but instead is snowing with some regularity (it's snowing RIGHT NOW), nothing could be better than wrapping up in a blanket and reading a book. Quality did not match quantity, so here's hoping May will bring better if fewer books.


Zero Day, by David Baldacci
Clawback, by J.A. Jance
Human Remains, by Elizabeth Haynes

Zero Day is the first in what is evidently a series featuring Army investigator John Puller, who is called to rural Virginia to find out who killed an entire family (the father of the family is military, which accounts for Puller's involvement). He uncovers a massive conspiracy, which is interesting but not the kind of thing that makes me love a mystery.

Clawback is the latest in J.A. Jance's Ali Reynolds series and involves Ali and her husband B. in ferreting out what happened to Ali's parents retirement savings and who killed multiple murder victims strewn around Sedona. Not the most engaging of Jance's mysteries but not horrible.

Human Remains is an intriguing book featuring police data analyst Annabel, who notices that an unusually large number of dead bodies are being found in their homes. The dead appear to be isolated--they have been dead for some time before anyone notices anything is amiss or misses them--and there is no evidence of foul play. Still, the numbers are so large that Annabel decides she should try to interest investigators in the case. Eventually, she does that--but she also falls victim to the villain in the case, Colin. Colin is fascinated with decay and has developed a method (we never learn exactly what it is, though it seems to be some form of hypnotism) that convinces people to go to bed and stop eating and drinking. Interspersed through sections from the perspectives of Annabel and Colin are brief accounts from those who have died. Very creepy and interesting.


Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut

Wow--what a crazy and funny look at humankind. The protagonist is a writer who is working on a book about what important people were doing on the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. In the course of researching his book, he becomes involved with the children of a scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project and ends up (briefly) the ruler of a Caribbean nation and a practitioner of Bokononism, a religion created by a calypso singer. An entertaining satire of religion, science, and modern life.


The Maytrees, by Annie Dillard
Shine Shine Shine, by Lydia Netzer
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman
The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters
Among the Hidden, Margaret Peterson Haddix
Eligible, by Curtis Sittenfield
Golden Age, by Jane Smiley

Many of the Amazon reader reviews of The Maytrees verge on ecstatic. Sadly, I found the book eminently forgettable. In fact, I had to look at Amazon to remember what it was about--a couple marry, they have a child who breaks his leg, the man runs off with a "hippie-ish" friend, and the woman takes him in when he returns 20 years later needing care. I'm sure it's a weakness on my part--after all Annie Dillard is a highly respected writer--but this book made no impression on me.

Shine Shine Shine features Maxon, a brilliant scientist and astronaut who is clearly on the autism spectrum, his wife Sunny with whom he fell in love when they were both children, and their autistic son Bubber. Sunny (who has been bald since birth) has been working hard to be normal--in fact, to be an uber-suburban trendsetting mother. Pregnant with their second child, Sunny is furious with Maxon for going on a space expedition during the later stages of her pregnancy. And her fury seems justified, as things are not going at all well for Sunny--nor are they going too well for Maxon, as the mission is threatened and the crew may not survive. Shine Shine Shine has some fantastical elements that did not appeal to me but I concede that it is, by any standard, original.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane has been described as a fairy tale, which I guess is apt. After attending a funeral, a middle-aged man is driving around the area where he lived as a seven-year-old boy. In a dream/reverie, he relives the frightening and supernatural experiences of the period, when he was threatened by a wicked nanny and saved by a magical trio of women who lived nearby--a grandmother, mother, and daughter. I won't go into details other than to say if you ever have something that looks like a hole in your foot, be afraid, be very afraid. Fantasy is not my cup of tea and at the end of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I had the "Hunh?" reaction--but it held my interest.

I'm not sure what I expected from The Paying Guests, but it definitely surprised me. Frances Wray is a 26-year-old "spinster," living with her mother in the family home in 1922. Her two brothers were killed in World War I and her father also died, leaving the Wray women impoverished. To address their economic problems, they rent out the second floor of their London home to a young couple, Lillian and Leonard Barber. The Barbers are of the "clerk class," and Frances's mother does not deign to socialize with them. Frances, however, is drawn to Lillian and, as the two become more involved (warning/spoiler: if you are put off by descriptions of lesbian sex, stay away from this book), dark deeds and legal problems ensue. The depictions of class differences and how crimes were investigated and tried in the period between the wars are interesting, but Frances's near-constant mental agonizing and Lillian's whining become tiresome. By the end, I really didn't care what happened to them or anyone else.

This winter, by eight-year-old granddaughter got totally into a YA series called The Shadow Children, so I decided to give the first book--Among the Hidden--a try. It's set in a dystopic future when famine has caused the government to enact a two-child limit. Third children, like the protagonist Luke, must be hidden away at home. Although Luke has been able to play in the nearby woods, when the woods is destroyed to make room for a housing development, Luke can no longer leave the house. Watching out the attic window, however, he sees a girl in one of the new homes and decides she, too, is a hidden child. When the two become friends, Luke learns Jen is something of an online rabble-rouser, organizing a protest she thinks can bring about change. Things do change, but not as she expected. The book seems dark for a third-grader, but it's an interesting premise that again (as in the Hunger Games) makes young people pay for the mess adults have made.

If you love Pride and Prejudice (as I do), you may enjoy Curtis Sittenfield's modern adaptation, in which Mrs. Bennett is a shopaholic hoarder and the Bennett girls are involved with, among other things, donor insemination, reality TV, a transgender Crossfit trainer, and bowling. Eligible is silly and predictable, but it's also kind of fun.

Golden Age is the final volume in Jane Smiley's Last Hundred Years trilogy. Like the first two books in the trilogy, it takes us year by year through some "highlights" in the lives of multiple generations of the Langdon family, whose roots are in Iowa farmland. The book covers the years from 1987-2019 and engages family members with many of the big events of the time period--global warming/climate change is a major theme,but GMOS and other changes in farming, financial scandals of various types and eras, 9/11, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan all affect the family as well (unfortunately, the Langdon family, while engaged in many current events, seems little interested or concerned about the racial problems that confront the United States--Ferguson, Eric Garner, and Charleston are one-sentence references). Smiley predicts a dismal short-term future for the United States, primarily due to climate change. Because there are so many characters, I once again found it challenging to care deeply about any of them. Not Smiley's best work (although the writing often offers its own rewards).


The Oregon Trail, by Rinker Buck
About Alice, by Calvin Trillin

I know several people who loved The Oregon Trail, Rinker Buck's account of driving the historic trail in a covered wagon pulled by a mule team, with  his brother as company. I found some parts of the book entertaining, but it's too long, in large part because Buck doesn't seem to have an editing capability. He feels compelled to tell everything he learned as he prepared for and took the trip--I, for one, don't need to know as much about mules as he conveys. I struggled to finish the book.

About Alice, in contrast, is a very brief book, essentially a love letter from Calvin Trillin to his late wife. It's sweet and heartening to a cynic like me to see that love can endure. Overall, however, it didn't tell me anything more than that.

Pick of the Litter: Human Remains, by Elizabeth Haynes (not great literature--but engaging)

Favorite Passages

"I'm not strange to myself, but I realize that I contrast with others fairly sharply."

If your life remained in your mind, complex and busy, full of what you had read as well as what you had done and whom you had met, you could carry it into the future, and it would all, somehow, flow together.

Both from Golden Age, by Jane Smiley

Friday, April 1, 2016

A Potpourri Topped with an Excellent Mystery

I often exhort myself to stop reading mysteries--so many of them just aren't very good. But somehow I can't make myself give them entirely (though I don't read as many as I used to)--and when I come across a good one, I'm reminded why I started reading mysteries in the first place.

What She Knew, by Gilly Macmillan
What Was Mine, by Helen Klein Ross
The Quality of Silence, by Rosamund Lupton

What She Knew is  told in retrospect by two narrators--the mother of an eight-year-old boy who goes missing when they are walking in the woods and the police officer  in charge of the investigation (he's writing the story out for his therapist). Their stories are interspersed with the therapist's notes and media stories, which add even greater complexity to the narrative. The "mystery" itself is not unique but Macmillan tells it so well, with excellent character development, solid writing, and an interesting structure, that What She Knew holds your attention from first page to last.

What Was Mine illustrates that the story of child abduction is not unique, as it too is the story of a child abducted, this time an infant taken from an Ikea store. It too has multiple narrators, but the story belongs primarily to Lucy, the abductor, who also happens to be a very successful ad executive who hires a nanny to do much of the actual care of "her" child. Because the child's birth mother is not always portrayed positively, I began to feel like Helen Klein Ross was trying to make us empathize with a child abductor. I wasn't able to do that and it made reading What Was Mine somewhat uncomfortable. I guess that's an authorial achievement, but it made me wish I hadn't read the book.

Several years ago, I picked Rosamund Lupton's Sister as my favorite mystery of the year, so I approached The Quality of Silence with enthusiasm. Unfortunately, it is so completely unbelievable that I couldn't even enjoy the parts that are done well (descriptions of the Arctic tundra in Alaska, the depiction of a hearing-impaired child's thinking and frustrations). To illustrate the utter implausibility of the story: a British woman who brings her daughter to Alaska to visit their photographer husband/father ends up driving an 18-wheeler across the ice-surfaced Dalton Highway in mid-winter (no, she's never driven a truck before). Please.

Howard's End, by E.M. Forster

Howard's End is the source of the epigrammatic "Only connect," which represents the philosophy of protagonist Margaret Schlegel. She and her sister Helen are upper-class English women who spend their time attending concerts, traveling, and attending discussion groups. At one concert, they happen to meet a working man, Leonard Bast, with whom their lives will be forever entangled. On a trip to Europe, they meet the Wilcox family, with whom they will also be entangled. The Wilcox family owns the country home Howard's End, which the surviving members of the Wilcox family do not appreciate. The entanglement of the Schlegels with Bast and the Wilcox family allows Forster to explore several themes, including country vs. city living and how urbanization was affecting British life, class differences and the responsibility of the wealthy for the poor, and the meaning of home. Of course, Howard's End is a classic, but it did not move me personally (despite an excellent reading by Emma Thompson), at least in part because the characters seemed more like they were written to represent ideas than actual people.

The Guest Room, by Chris Bohjalian
The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, Katarina Bivald
Who Do You Love, by Jennifer Wiener

In The Guest Room, Richard Chapman, a happily married money manager, hosts a bachelor party for his younger and wilder brother; the brother's friend hires two prostitutes who turn out to be sex slaves--and things go downhill, way downhill from there. Richard's life gets out of control so quickly that it's mind-boggling, but also a cautionary tale on the precariousness of life. Not optimistic in any way.

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend has gotten a lot of ink, but I don't quite understand why, as it's an essentially silly story. A young out-of-work Swedish woman named Sara travels to Broken Wheel, Iowa, only to discover that the pen pal Amy she is going to meet has died and the town is pretty close to expiring as well. Of course, she decides to start a business (without a proper visa) selling Amy's books, manages to revitalize the town and the collection of off-beat characters who live there, and falls in love. Bivald's book only seems tolerable in comparison to Jennifer Wiener's sappy Who Do You Love, about which I cannot bring myself to say more.

My Beloved World, by Sonia Sotomayor
The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell
Grandma Gatewood's Walk, by Ben Montgomery
Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice, by Adam Makos

My Beloved World is the story of Justice Sotomayor's life before she became a member of the Supreme Court, with emphasis on her childhood and her years in college. Her childhood was far from easy--her father was an alcoholic who died young, her mother was hard-working but emotionally distant, she herself was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes, a very serious illness at the time. She worked hard in school and was able to gain admittance to Princeton, followed by Yale Law School. Her time in college was not without challenges, however, as she realized that high school had not prepared her for the kind of thinking that was expected in elite colleges. At the same time, she had to work to feel at home in these privileged environments and to build friendships; she became an activist for causes related to Latino students, faculty, and staff. She touches upon her early career in the DA's office and in private practice, but tells us little about her work as a judge and nothing about the Supreme Court. This is disappointing for SCOTUS followers but hardly surprising, given that institution's penchant for secrecy. Overall, My Beloved World is an enjoyable read.

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell looks at what causes rapid change, whether in fashion or more significant areas such as reduction in crime rates or increase in smoking among teens. Gladwell essentially identifies three factors: the context, the "stickiness" of the idea, and whether the people involved are "connectors, mavens, or salespeople." The examples are interesting, but the book does not seem as ground-breaking as it was considered when it was published; of course, that might be because it was published in 2002.

Grandma Gatewood's Walk is the story of a woman who decided to walk the Appalachian Trail when she was 67 (the author repeatedly refers to her as elderly or old--annoying!). Completely unprepared for the rigors of the hike (in part due to false advertising), Gatewood nonetheless managed to walk the entire length of the trail in the summer of 1955, persevering (she survived an abusive husband and raising 11 children so her strength was undeniable) and relying on the kindness of strangers. As her trek continued, she drew national press attention, which helped to increase interest and investment in the trail. An engaging yarn.

The Korean War is often called the "Forgotten War," so it was interesting to read Devotion, a book about the Korean War. The book focuses on two Navy pilots, Tom Hudner, a white pilot from a privileged background, and Jesse Brown, the Navy's first African American pilot, who was from a hardworking but not well-off Southern family. The book tells their back stories as it progresses toward an extended description of the battle at the Chosin Reservoir. Author Adam Makos does provide a lot of historic information about the war and Tom and Jesse's story is touching, but their relationship feels less like a friendship, as claimed in the book's subtitle, than mutual respect and admiration among teammates. In addition, the book in telling this one story presents a very rosy view of the racial integration of the military, a process that was actually lengthy and much more difficult than presented here.  Okay for those who like to read about the history of wars, but not for the average reader (a group in which I'd include myself).  

Pick of the Litter: What She Knew

Favorite Passage

. . . I watched the grainy night contours of my garden morph slowly into a strangely lit morning where the rising sun tinted the pendulous clouds so that they were not entirely black, but colored instead with bruised fleshy tones, burnished in places. It was the kind of light that nobody would mistake for hope.

From What She Knew, by Gilly Macmillan