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

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