Monday, August 22, 2016

Stop Me Before I Read Again!

The month isn't even over, and I've already read 19 books (although three were YA books and a bunch were quickly perused mysteries). Still, is it any wonder I'm behind on work?

Fifteenth Affair, by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro
The Ex, by Alafair Burke
Never Tell, by Alafair Burke
Missing, Presumed, by Susie Steiner
I Let You Go, by Clare MacIntosh
The Perfect Ghost, by Linda Barnes
Blue Monday, by Nicci French

I'm getting to the point where I have nothing to say about 95 percent of the mysteries I read. Missing, Presumed was a cut above the others, providing an interesting character study of the mother of a missing woman and two police officers; the mystery, itself, however, is somewhat lame. These were okay as fluff (i.e., work avoidance), but nothing really exciting/challenging. And please note, mystery writers: A twist on its own does not save a book!

Among the Brave, Among the Enemy, and Among the Free, by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Yes, I finally finished the Shadow Children series. The original concept (the government has made it illegal to have more than two children) was interesting, but the whole thing devolved pretty badly by the end. I can't actually believe my granddaughter (age 8 when she read it) understood all the plot machinations because I couldn't track what the heck was going on. So many better options out there (The Giver and its two sequels to name just one).

Truly Madly Guilty, by Liane Moriarty
The Diving Pool, by Yoko Ogawa
Attachments, by Rainbow Rowell
The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson
Dreamers of the Day, by Mary Doria Russell

Truly Madly Guilty is the story of three suburban couples who are, kind of, friends. Something bad happened the last time all three couples got together (and we know it's something about a child), and the event has changed the relationships within and between the couples. As with Moriarty's other books, there's lots of snarky humor, but it's harder to enjoy when there's death or injury of a child lurking in the background. If this had been my first Moriarty, I might have enjoyed it more, but as my fourth or fifth, it didn't feel very fresh.

If you have read Yoko Ogawa's charming The Housekeeper and the Professor, the three novellas in The Diving Pool will shock you as they are creepy and full of what I think of as Japanese literary alienation. The title story is about a teenage girl, Aya, whose parents run an orphanage, where she lives with the other children. She is somewhat obsessed with Jun, a boy about her age who is a champion diver; she also finds herself treating a toddler named Rie with exceptional cruelty. The second novella, Pregnancy Diary (a favorite of my son, the expert in Japanese literature), is a journal by the sister of a pregnant woman. Much of the diary focuses on the pregnant sister's diet, particularly her voracious eating of grapefruit jam made by the journal-keeper, who has read something that suggests the jam may be toxic. Dormitory is about a Tokyo woman whose husband has gotten a job in Sweden. She is contacted by a young cousin who is looking for a place to stay while attending school in Tokyo; she sets him up at the rooming house where she lived as a student--but it has gone downhill precipitously since and the reader immediately feels concern for her cousin. Ogawa has crafted a disturbing set of stories--but they do make you think and keep you reading.

Attachments sounded like a cute idea--a man whose job is to monitor employees' emails falls in love with a woman whose email exchanges with a friend often violate company policy. I guess maybe I should have known when I thought "cute" that the book would be pretty shallow, but for some reason I had hopes for the book, unjustified hopes as it turns out.

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared mixes the adventures of the elderly protagonist, Allan Karlsson, following his escape from a senior citizens home in small-town Sweden, with his back story, which saw him involved in numerous key events of the 20th century, from the Spanish Civil War to the Manhattan Project; he was responsible for giving the Soviets the secret to nuclear weapons, spent years in a gulag, saved Winston Churchill from assassination, and much much more. The book made me think of a mash-up between Forrest Gump (his early life) and a Marx Brothers movie (his post-escape adventures with a motley crew of characters including an elephant, a gangster, and the owner of a hot dog stand). I found the book tedious before too many adventures had been completed.

My son recently mentioned that he had read and enjoyed Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, which I had read and enjoyed some years ago. So I decided to try another of her books--but one of her historical novels rather than science fiction. Dreamers of the Day is about an Ohio woman, Agnes Shanklin, whose entire family dies in the swine flu epidemic following World War I; she decides to take the money she inherits and, free from the constraints placed on her by an overbearing (but now dead) mother, travel to the Middle East, where her sister and brother-in-law had served as missionaries. Upon her arrival, she meets a German intelligence officer, as well as Winston Churchill, Lawrence of Arabia, and others attending the Cairo Peace Conference that will divide up the Middle East. The plot seems completely unbelievable, the main character is annoying, and the fantastical element introduced at the end of the book just seems stupid. Not recommended.

The Europeans, by Henry James

Perhaps this short novel does not really qualify as a classic, since it seems to be one of Henry James' lesser works. It's a comedic story of a brother and sister who travel from Europe to visit their American cousins, who live in New England. At least one of the siblings is hoping to find a wealthy spouse. At the heart of the story are the difference between the Europeans, who are haughty and yet shallow (particularly the sister), and the Americans, who are more stolid and tradition-bound. The language of the book is notable, but the story is definitely thin.

32 Yolks, by Eric Ripert
My Life on the Road, by Gloria Steinem
An Anthropologist on Mars, by Oliver Sacks

32 Yolks is the story of how Eric Ripert became a chef, starting from a difficult childhood and ending with his move to the United States. The most interesting thing about the book is how horribly chefs in Paris treated their employees--at least at the time when Ripert was training. The renowned chef Joel Robuchon (I have eaten at his restaurant in Tokyo) was a complete tyrant whose cooks lived in fear and suffered a variety of physical and mental ailments as a result. Truly horrifying.

In My Life on the Road, Gloria Steinem reflects on why she feels more at home on the road than in one place and what she has learned from her travels speaking, organizing, and working for change. It's definitely interesting to see her perspective on such things as conversation circles versus online community-building (she doesn't see the latter as powerful) and the interplay between racism and sexism, which it sometimes seems like she gets right, sometimes wrong. She definitely provides plenty to chew on, even when you don't agree with her--and she zings a few well-known folks (Betty Friedan in particular) to feed our base love of gossip. I listened to the book and was surprised that I didn't care for Debra Winger's narration, most notably because she several times made Steinem sound like she was condescending to the reader. I'd stick with print--but I'd definitely read it. In fact, I might read it again myself.

More than 20 years ago, I read Oliver Sacks' The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and talked about it so incessantly I must have annoyed everyone within earshot. I actually bought An Anthropologist on Mars shortly after it came out in 1995 but never got around to reading it. When Sacks wrote so movingly about his illness and impending death last year, I was reminded me of how much I respected his work and his humanity. So I picked up An Anthropologist on Mars and started reading--but it took me a long time to get through it. Somehow it didn't resonate as The Man . . . did years ago. I don't know if the particular case studies were less interesting--here he writes primarily about vision and autism (and I did enjoy the Temple Grandin case study, perhaps because I already knew her story and had read one of her books)--or I have changed. I still respect Sacks' intellectual curiosity and caring, but I found the heavily footnoted text a bit of a slog.

Pick of the litter:  My Life on the Road

Favorite passages:

…cruelty is one of fear’s most common by-products.

From 32 Yolks, by Eric Ripert

Soon there would be flowers, either at the site where a body was found or outside the house, from members of the public who wrote cards saying “You’re safe now” or “Rest in peace” or “Looking down from heaven.” They scare her, these tragedy tourists, as if they are hungry for catastrophe, a line from the inside of them to the inside of suffering, like a hook inside the cheek of a fish. Manon knows death, and she knows it is no rest or journey. “Do not go gently into that good night.”

From Missing, Presumed, by Susie Steiner

. . . the most reliable predictor of whether a country is violent within itself--or will use military violence against another country--is not poverty, natural resources, religion, or even degree of democracy; it's violence against females. It normalizes all other violence.

I began to see that, for some, religion was just a form of politics you couldn't criticize.

From My Life on the Road, by Gloria Steinm