Sunday, April 2, 2017

In Like a Clueless Millenial, Out Like a Clueless Senior

It's said that March cames in like a lion, out like a lamb--and sometimes it's even true here where March is, on average, the snowiest month (not this year!). My reading might be characterized as both coming in and going out with clueless characters, from Tess the narrator of Sweetbitter to Lou (AKA Lulu) of Bridge of Sighs. In between, some folks with clues, which is good!

Mysteries
The Highwayman, by Craig Johnson
Caught, by Harlan Coban
The Perfect Girl, by Gilly Macmillan

The Highwayman was my second Longmire mystery (though this one is a novella rather than a full-length book), and I liked it better than the first--despite its having a mystical element that is usually not my style. The story features strange occurrences--including the appearance of a state trooper who has been dead for years--on a remote stretch of highway running through a canyon. The descriptions of the landscape are lovely, and the mystery itself is okay. Might tempt me to read another Longmire (or watch some episodes on Netflix).

On a recent road trip with my sister, she asked me if I read Harlan Coban and I said I'd read a couple but hadn't been overly impressed. Her comments led me to give him another try--and it will be the last. I think all I need to say is that I read Caught about two weeks ago and can't remember a damn thing about it except that someone who's supposed to be dead isn't--something that has happened in every Coban book I've read!

The Perfect Girl is a creepy story about a blended family with two teenagers (both talented pianists) and a newborn. The teenage daughter has spent time in a juvenile facility because she was driving (without a license) when an accident occurred, killing her three passengers. This event broke up her parents' marriage and her mother now seems to be building a near-perfect "Second Life" with her wealthy and handsome new husband. To avoid any spoilers I won't say anything else except, based on this book and her previous novel What She Knew, author Gilly Macmillan seems to enjoy calling into question what a good mother is.


Fiction
Sweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler
Moonglow, by Michael Chabon
Nightwoods, by Charles Frazier
The Sleepwalker, by Chris Bohjalian
Harmless Like You, by Rowan Hisayo Buchanon
On Turpentine Lane, by Elinor Lipman
Bridge of Sighs, by Richard Russo

I printed out a list of the 20 books that landed on the most "best of 2016" lists, and Sweetbitter and Moonglow were both on it--but neither would even be on my "best of March" list. Sweetbitter is the story of a recent college graduate, Tess, who moves to New York and gets a job in a fine dining restaurant, where she works tirelessly, does a significant amount of cocaine, hooks up with a bartender, and hero-worships a long-time server who seems more pathetic than obsession-worthy. A completely pointless book as far as I'm concerned.

Moonglow must be taken more seriously, if only because its author is generally held in high regard--but I really didn't like it any better. It's structured as a grandson telling his grandfather's life story as it was told to him in the grandfather's dying days. Inspired by the author's experience with his own grandfather (the character of the grandson is named Michael Chabon), the story jumps back and forth in time, covering the grandfather's terrifying experiences in World War II his somewhat tortured marriage to Chabon's grandmother, who struggled with mental illness; and, is the way with Chabon's books, much much more. I didn't care for it, finding the characters somewhat cartoonish, but Moonglow has been positively reviewed by many, so don't let me hold you back if it sounds like something you would enjoy.

Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, a Civil War tale, was a sensation -- I think I was one of the few readers who found it mostly a bore, which was also how I felt about his novel Nightwoods, set in the 1960s. A young woman named Luce, who lives mostly cut off from civilization, tending an abandoned lodge, "inherits" her sister's children when the sister is murdered by her husband (although he is not charged with the crime). The children are mute, severely damaged by whatever they experienced in their home life. Meanwhile the sister's evil husband comes after them, and the heir of the lodge's former owner appears and falls in love with Luce. Sounds like the basis for an action-packed and moving story, right? And yet. mostly (I think) because of Frazier's overblown style, it feels like nothing is happening.

I enjoy Chris Bohjalian's work and admire his ability to write from a female perspective, as he does in The Sleepwalker. The protagonist here is college student Liana, whose mother, a sleepwalker, has recently disappeared. The police seem unable to figure out what is going on, and Liana takes on some investigating on her own. In the course of her investigations, she develops a relationship with one of the police officers, which seems pretty unlikely.  There's quite a lot of information about sleepwalking and the problems of sleepwalkers and a surprise at the ending, but overall, not one of Bohjalian's best but still a fairly entertaining read.

Harmless Like You is narrated from two perspectives. The first belongs to Yuki, a girl of Japanese heritage (but U.S. citizenship), set in the late 1960s and 1970s; when her businessman father is transferred back to Japan, her parents allow her to stay in the United States, living with a friend and her mother. But little goes well for Yuki, who hooks up with the mother's boyfriend and then, when the abusive relationship sours, hastily marries a friend. While trying to become an artist, she gives birth to a son and falls in to what appears to be a severe depression, leading her to abandon her husband and son. The second character is that son, an art dealer who is traveling to Berlin, where his mother now lives, while contemplating leaving his wife and newborn child. The author deals with several themes, most notably the role art plays in various people's lives and what it means to be married and a parent. Both the connections between Jay's shortcomings as a father and his mother's obvious parenting issues and the ultimate resolution seem too pat, but I still found the book interesting.

I enjoy Elinor Lipman's books--to me, she is a Jane Austen for the 20th/21st centuries. Her stories are relatively light, but they do include social commentary. On Turpentine Lane is a perfect example. Faith Frankel is a 30-something professional who is somewhat underemployed, engaged to an idiot who is walking across the country to find himself (and, apparently, meet women), and concerned about her father, who has moved out of her parents' home to become an artist (he paints faux Chagalls). She decides to buy a small house, which she eventually discovers has been the scene of two murders and the mysterious disappearance of two biracial children. It has a happy ending (at least for Faith, if not for other characters) and it's just good fun!

I have a more troubled relationship with Richard Russo. I loved Empire Falls, but then my 90s book group (not Novel Conversations) got on a Russo kick that caused me to get really sick of him. Recently, I seem to have initiated my own kick, reading both Nobody's Fool and Bridge of Sighs in the past couple months. Bridge of Sighs tempted me to declare this Russo kick over, but I still want to read Everybody's Fool, so I'm going to persist. Anyway, Bridge of Sighs is primarily the story of Lou Lynch and his hometown of Thomaston, a rather run-down burg in upstate New York. Lou has done well with the convenience store business he  inherited from his father, and he's happily married to his high school sweetheart Sarah. But Lou suffers from "spells" that started after a traumatic childhood incident and worries that his wife really loves his friend Bobby, who had to flee Thomaston after nearly killing his own father, Bobby became a successful painter, living in Venice. Although Lou is the central character, sections of the book are also narrated by Bobby and Sarah. Sadly, the book doesn't have the pop of Nobody's Fool or Empire Falls, perhaps because Lou is intentionally designed as a rather boring guy. Despite the infusion of such issues as domestic abuse and racism, the book never takes off and the ending is totally ridiculous.

Science Fiction/Fantasy
The Diamond Age, by Neil Stephenson
Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch

My son Kevin recommended The Diamond Age, and I surprised myself by thoroughly enjoying it. It's a very complex story set sometime in the future but at its heart is a high tech primer that master engineer John Percival Hackworth designed for a wealthy nobleman who wants to subvert the education his granddaughter is receiving in the schools. Hackworth makes an unauthorized copy for his own daughter, but that copy is then stolen by a young tough who gives it to his sister Nell. The primer becomes Nell's constant companion and educator as she grows up into a woman of destiny. Meanwhile, Hackworth loses his job and goes on a quest for a mysterious figure known as the Alchemist.  This synopsis really gives no sense of the book, which is rich and complex and strange. The ending was not as satisfying as I might have wished, but nonetheless quite wonderful.

Dark Matter starts out as the story of a rather ordinary college professor, Jason Dessen and his wife, who gave up her career as an artist to raise their son. But then, on the way home from a bar, he is kidnapped by a stranger, driven to an abandoned power plant in south Chicago, and drugged; he wakes up in a lab, greeted by a team of people who are delighted to see him and curious to find out what has happened to him while absent from his life. Eventually, Jason realizes that he is in a parallel universe where his career is much more exalted but he has no family. He desperately tries to make his way back home, journeying through various Chicagos where he encounters even more versions of himself. The premise is interesting, as is some of Crouch's exploration of the concept of how each decision an individual makes creates alternate universes. The latter part of the book devolves into an action movie sequence (the book is, in fact, being made into a movie), which definitely made detracted from the very interesting first half.

Young Adult
A Night Divided, by Jennifer A. Nielsen

My nine (and a half)-year-old granddaughter recommended A Night Divided to me, describing it as "intense." And she wasn't wrong. It's the story of a family living in East Berlin when the wall went up. The family's father and one son were working in the West at the time and were unable to return home to the mother, older son, and daughter. The daughter, 12-year-old Gerta, is feisty and insightful--and she quickly realizes that being trapped in the East foretells a life that she does not want. She and her brother decide to take action, which leads to a heart-pounding conclusion. A good read with some history kids may not otherwise learn much about.

Classics
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain

Despite being written in 1953, Fahrenheit 451 remains a compelling dystopian novel in which books are burned and thought is tightly controlled. The protagonist, Guy Montag is a fireman whose wife finds television characters more authentic than Guy or anyone else in the "real world." Then he meets a young neighbor who has her own ideas about the past and the future, and he begins to question the foundations of his life. He begins hoarding books, eventually becoming a fugitive. More than likely, everyone but me has already read this book, but if you haven't, do so!

Double Indemnity, on the other hand, is a rather silly book. An insurance agent becomes instantly enamored with a woman who comes into his office, agreeing to murder her husband on very short acquaintance. Seriously? Apologies to all who find it tightly plotted, suspenseful, or exciting, but I really thought it was ridiculous.

Nonfiction
Old Age: A Beginner's Guide, by Michael Kinsley

Being past retirement age (but not retired), I may be fixating on illness and aging. Last month it was Richard Cohen's book about being diagnosed with MS at a young age, this month it's Michael Kinsley (like Cohen, a journalist) discussing an early Parkinson's diagnosis. The title is somewhat misleading, as the book is not so much about aging as about Parkinson's and the author's own experience. In the last chapter, he argues that baby boomers ought to use their accumulated wealth to pay off the national debt, an achievement he believes would surpass the contributions of the so-called Greatest Generation--definitely an odd conclusion. If you don't want to get into a full-blown obsession with books on aging and illness, I would recommend Cohen's work over Kinsley's.

Pick of the Litter: The Diamond Age and (at a very different level) On Turpentine Lane

Favorite Passages

Most of their children had reached the age when they were no longer naturally endearing to anyone save their own parents; the size when their energy was more a menace than a wonder; and the level of intelligence when what would have been called innocence in a smaller child was infuriating rudeness. A honeybee cruising for nectar is pretty despite its implicit threat, but the same behavior in a hornet three times larger makes one glance about for some handy swatting material.

Not very honourable, I suppose, but then  there is no honour among consultants. 

Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age

We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were
really bothered? About something important, about something real? 

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451


Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Long Book List for a Short Month . . . and a Rant on Vocal Fry in Audio Books

I got a lot of reading done this month--this list doesn't even include a few books I read "selectively" (but well more than half of each) so I could comment on them in our One Book One Broomfield deliberations. But before I get to this month's list . . . my rant. Two books I've listened to lately have featured liberal use of "vocal fry." In case you don't know what that is, vocal fry refers to a fad, particularly among younger women, in which (technical description) "the vocal folds are shortened and slack so they close together completely and pop back open, with a little jitter, as the air comes through. That popping, jittery effect gives the voice a characteristic sizzling or frying sound." If you don't know what I'm talking about, try sustaining a word in your normal speaking register, as if singing, and then dropping your voice several notes lower--does your voice "sizzle" slightly?  That's vocal fry (if that doesn't work, check out this article: http://mentalfloss.com/article/61552/what-vocal-fry).

I find vocal fry very irritating, both in real life and in audio books. I realize (and I sure hope I'm right about this) that the narrator is using this technique for effect to show us something about the character. But it's not necessary; if the book is well-written, we'll understand from the author's descriptions and the dialogue that the character is young, somewhat less than completely serious, talks like a Kardashian, etc. So please, please, please, audio book narrators, knock off the vocal fry!!

Okay, now to books.

Mysteries

The Widow, by Fiona Barton
An Obvious Fact, by Craig Johnson
The Language of Secrets, by Ausma Zehanat Khan
Until You're Mine, by Samantha Hayes
Escape Clause, by John Sandford
Right Behind You, by Lisa Gardner


The Widow is a creepy story told from four perspectives: the widow of a man suspected of kidnapping and killing a child several years earlier; the man himself; the police officer who has tried to convict the suspect; and a reporter. While the story is creepy, it's not very surprising, although I assume the author thought she would surprise us with developments in the widow's story. Sadly, I could see the developments coming. Mediocre at best.

I had never read any of Craig Johnson's Longmire series, and I don't think I will read any more. There's nothing terrible about An Obvious Fact, but the tongue-in-cheek attitude just doesn't appeal to me and the mystery (involving a hit-and-run accident at a motorcycle rally) is not especially interesting.

The Language of Secrets is the second in a series featuring Canadian police officers Rachel Getty and Esa Khattak). Beautifully written, it deals with a complicated case of terrorism, infiltration, and professional jealousy--so complicated I found it a bit hard to track. However, I liked it well enough to decide I would go back and read book 1 in the series, hoping the background it provides would help me better understand this book. Definitely worth a look for mystery fans interested in different settings and exploration of terrorism.

The protagonist of Until You're Mine is pregnant social worker Claudia Morgan-Brown. Married to a naval officer who brought twin sons to the marriage, Claudia has recently hired a nanny, Zoe, to help her while her husband is at sea and the baby is born. Meanwhile, someone is killing pregnant women and their babies, and Claudia begins to fear that something is off about Zoe--and so are the readers! While author Samantha Hayes does spring a surprise ending on readers, I didn't find it very convincing--in fact, it seemed so out of sync with the rest of the book that the book was essentially ruined for me.

Escape Clause is the latest Virgil Flowers mystery, and it is a lame story about the kidnapping of two tigers from the Minnesota zoo, A subplot about Frankie (Virgil's girlfriend) and her sister's attempts to help factory workers does little to redeem the book. Not recommended.

Lisa Gardner has returned to former FBI profiler Pierce Quincy and his wife Rainie in Right Behind You. Pierce and Rainie are about to adopt Sharlah, whose brother Telly killed their parents eight years earlier. Suddenly, Telly returns, apparently involved in a spree killing; evidence suggests Sharlah must be in danger.  Pierce, Rainie, and Sharlah (the extent to which they allow the child to be engaged in the case is ridiculous)--with the aid of the local police--must figure out exactly what is going on, Not great, but an okay diversion.

Fiction

Tomorrow, by Graham Swift
Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin
Small Admissions, by Amy Poeppel
Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi
Past Imperfect, by Julian Fellowes
Horrorstor, by Grady Hendrix
News of the World, by Paulette Jiles

Graham Swift is a Booker-prize winner, but Tomorrow is frankly disgusting. It is formatted as a letter being written to teenage twins by their mother on the eve of the day on which she and their father will reveal a family secret to them. The secret is fairly clear long before it is actually revealed, and the narrative is one of the most cringe-worthy I've read; the mother is horrible, sharing lewd details of her sex life with her husband with her children and evincing attitudes toward the meaning of parenthood that made me sad and disgusting. So not recommended.

I had never read any Colm Toibin, but had seen many glowing reviews of his work. Sadly, I was not too impressed with Brooklyn, which is the story of Eilis Lacey, who grows up in Ireland, is sent to the United States to find greater opportunities, and returns to Ireland when her beloved sister dies. Much of the narrative is taken up with romances and work. Many reviewers have described her as an unforgettable character, but I found myself unable to get beyond her passive nature and really idiotic decision-making. I enjoy a good book about the immigrant experience, but, in my opinion, Brooklyn isn't it.

Small Admissions is a satire focused on (1) millennials who cannot get out of bed after a break-up and subsequently get jobs for which they are totally unqualified and (2) young parents in New York who try to get their children into the best private schools. The descriptions of admissions interviews and parents' efforts to obscure their children's real personalities and foibles are hilarious. Not deep but fun.

Homegoing is an interesting book, a novel that seems more like a series of short stories. The book alternates between chapters about the lives and descendants of two Ghanaian half sisters, Effia and Esi. Under pressure from her stepmother, Effia marries the British governor and her family remains in Ghana for two centuries; through their stories, we learn about Ghanaian history, including conflicts between tribal groups and with the British. Esi is sold into slavery and, through her descendants' stories, we get one perspective on the experience of slavery and "freedom" in the United States. Both families encounter difficulties that are hard to imagine--and Gyasi tells the stories beautifully. Near the end of the book, the two families encounter each other in a manner that is somewhat predictable but still rewarding. I recommend this emotional and insightful book.

Past Imperfect, written by the creator of Downton Abby, lays bare the lives of young English men and women of the upper classes in the late 1960s and explicates how life for those  folks has changed since then. The story is set up as a somewhat ridiculous quest--a man agrees to find the illegimate son Damian Baxter, a dying man he actively hates because of a traumatic vacation decades earlier. Through his interviews with the numerous women in their set with whom Damian slept, we see the foibles of the wealthy. Really a very silly book.

And speaking of silly, Horrorstor starts out as a satire of Ikea, complete with book pages that resemble a catalog. But the book quickly morphs into a ridiculous ghost story chronicling horrors that befall a group of employees trapped in the Ikea clone overnight. Perhaps I am just too old for something like this, but I cannot recommend Horrorstor.

In News of the World, Captain Jefferson Kidd, 70-year-old veteran, travels around Texas, charging a dime to read articles from East Coast and European newspapers to people in small towns. Then he is tasked with taking a 10-year-old girl recently rescued from the Kiowas to her relatives hundreds of miles away. Johanna, who has spent four years with the Kiowas, has forgotten English and the ways of her German-American family; in her mind, she is Kiowa. The book is the story of their journey and the process by which they came to love each other. Though I don't think this is a great book (several of my friends disagree), it is sweet and I recommend it.

Classics

Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison

I remember enjoying Invisible Man in college, but all I could recall was that the protagonist lived underground in New York, surviving off the grid as a literal and virtual invisible. In fact, the book is about the events that led him to that point--growing up in the severely racist South; a tragi-comedic series of events that led to his expulsion from a historically black college; his efforts to find work in New York, unaware that his letters of recommendation from his college's president are really letters of condemnation; his experience as a spokesman for "The Brotherhood," an activist group (likely modeled on the Communist Party). At every phase of his life, he ends up feeling duped, unseen by those who take advantage of him. Invisible Man is a powerful exploration of racism and identity in mid-century America--yet many of its observations still seem relevant. Strongly recommended.

Young Adult

What We Saw at Night, by Jacqueline Mitchard

Allie, Rob, and Juliet are teenagers who suffer from a genetic disorder, Xeriderma Pigmentosum that prevents them from going out in the sunlight. At night, the three take part in a dangerous activity called Parkour, which involves climbing and jumping from tall structures. During one of their Parkour adventures, Allie believes she witnessed a murder. Things become even more complicated when it appears that Juliet has a relationship with the murderer and the threesome experiences a rift when Rob and Allie become a couple. XO and Parkour are kind of interesting but the story is murky and unrewarding. Not recommended for young or old adults.

Nonfiction

Blindsided: Lifting a Life Above Illness, by Richard M. Cohen
Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience, edited by Shaun Usher

Blindsided is an interesting look at what it is like to live with a chronic illness (MS) diagnosed at an early age and to deal with an acute illness (cancer twice). Cohen details how the illness affected both his personal and professional lives. Honestly, I'm not sure I could survive being either the person with the illness or his spouse (Cohen is married to Meredith Vierra); while neither is perfect, they both are admirable. It would have been interesting to get more of their three children's perspectives,  but I understand why a father would deal only indirectly with the children's responses. Recommended.

Letters of Note is indeed an eclectic collection. Some examples of letters included: letters from mothers who placed their children for adoption, an eight-year-old's missive to Richard Nixon, a Campbell's Soup marketing executive's letter to Andy Warhol, Raymond Chandler's response to being overedited, Virginia Woolf's suicide note, a letter from Queen Elizabeth transmitting a recipe to President Eisenhower, advice from Ernest Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and a long description (by his wife) of Alduous Huxley's dying). I would think that any reader would find some letters of particular interest to him/her (while the reader who would be enthralled by all might be a rarity). Worth a look.  BTW: The abbreviation OMG dates back to 1917!

Pick of the Litter:  Invisible Man

Favorite Passages

I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer. It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself.

Ralph Ellison, in Invisible Man

We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So, when you study history, you must always ask yourself, whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth?

Yaa Gyasia, in Homegoing

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

January: Reading to Escape Politics!

I did a lot of reading in January--though escaping politics turned out to be a difficult (if not impossible) goal. Nonetheless, here is what used for distraction (sorry it's so long--perhaps I should go back to individual entries!).

Mysteries
Kate Burkholder: Three Novellas, by Linda Castillo
Among the Wicked, by Linda Castillo
Luckiest Girl Alive, by Jessica Knoll
The Trespasser, by Tana French
Out of Bounds, by Val McDermid

I'm not sure why mystery writers even produce novellas--there's not enough space to develop and resolve an intriguing mystery. Unless there's a really unusual twist or superlative writing, mystery novellas tend not to be very rewarding reading. Even given that, the Kate Burkholder novellas are better than Among the Wicked, in which Linda Castillo has totally jumped the shark with her ex-Amish police chief. Burkholder goes undercover in a fringe Amish community; poorly prepared and completely undisciplined, Kate nearly is killed. Just in case you want to read this book, I won't mention some of the other reasons this book is completely unbelievable, but suffice it to say I'm done with the Burkholder series.

Luckiest Girl Alive isn't really a mystery but it's marketed as being similar to Gone Girl or Girl on a Train so I wanted to put this review where fans of those books might be most likely to read it. There is simply no comparison--except that the word girl appears in the title and that titular character is less than likable. Here that character is Ani, a high-powered New Yorker who is preparing for her wedding while dealing with memories of a terrible experience more than a dozen years early when she was in boarding school. It's tragic that girls have such experiences, but concern about teenage girls is not enough to make this book worthwhile.

The Trespasser is a rather typical entry in French's Dublin Murder Squad series. It involves a detective (Antoinette Conway) with personal problems and a case involving numerous twists and turns--here the murder of a young woman. All the early evidence points to her date--but of course nothing can be that simple. I thought The Trespasser lacked some of the evocative writing that marked earlier entries in the series, but it was fairly effective as a diversion from politics.

Out of Bounds was definitely the best mystery of the month. Karen Pirie, mourning the death of her lover, takes on two cold cases (or historic cases as they are evidently called in Scotland), one of which is linked to a current case. If you like the procedural aspects of mysteries, there is interesting material here about DNA evidence and the ways in which cold cases are re-examined. Not a sparkler, but decent entertainment for mystery-lovers.

Fiction
Swing Time, by Zadie Smith
Siracusa, by Delia Ephron
How to Set a Fire and Why, by Jesse Ball
The Girls, by Emma Cline
The Sellout, by Paul Beatty
The Angel of History, by Rabih Alameddine
A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Toles
Another Brooklyn, by Jacqueline Woodson
Orhan's Inheritance, by Aline Ohanesian
Zero K, by Don DeLillo

Swing Time tells the story of two biracial friends who grew up in public housing in London loving musicals and dancing. The more talented dancer of the two, Tracey, makes some bad decisions and doesn't manage to escape the low-income estates. The other, our nameless narrator (at least I can't remember her name), goes to college and becomes an assistant to a pop star who seems to be a combination of Oprah and Madonna (she starts a school for girls in Africa and adopts an African baby under suspicious circumstances). The book deals with a number of themes--racism, family relationships, childhood friendship, British politics (the narrator's mother is a feminist who becomes an MP), the inspiration of art, and the unintended consequences of charitable activities--all while spinning a story that carries the reader along. I don't think Swing Time is a great book, but it's a good one worth reading.

Siracusa, on the other hand, is not worth your time. It's the overly foreshadowed and thus predictable story of two couples vacationing together in Sicily. There seems to be no really good reason for them to be hanging out together--in fact, since one husband and the other wife were once lovers, there seem to be pretty good reasons for them not to; and the results are bad. All four main characters--and one couple's daughter Snow--are completely unsympathetic; given that there's no exploration of meaningful ideas either, the book is a complete waste of time.

How to Set a Fire and Why and The Girls have some similarities--both are about teenage girls whose families fall apart, leaving them to fend for themselves. The protagonist of How to Set a Fire has a rebellious voice (a la Holden Caulfield); she is fascinated with fire and hopes to join her school's arson club. Then an interested teacher who sees her potential helps her gain acceptance to a boarding school for exceptional kids; but the hope for a positive future is short-lived, as a conflict with her aunt's landlord ends up undermining her plans. I found it interesting that this compelling, disturbed female character was written by a male author--but it works, and I cared about Lucia. In contrast, despite the fact that The Girls was a "big book" in 2016, I really didn't care about its main character, Evie, who gets drawn into a Manson-like cult. We know from the frame in which the story of Evie's youth is set (an encounter with a friend's son prompts remembrance) that Evie is not one of the girls who were imprisoned, which removes any real suspense from the story. We may learn a lot about cults, but not enough to make this book recommendable.

The Sellout won the Man Booker prize, the first book by a U.S. author to do so. I can't help thinking that the Brits enjoyed giving the award to an absolutely scathing satirical novel about race in America. The main character is Bonbon Me, an African American farmer in Los Angeles who has a slave (a former child actor), resegregates his neighborhood and local school, likes to create Latin mottoes for his race, and torments a group of black intellectuals who meet in Dum Dum Doughnuts. The book is fast-paced (although you're never sure that it's actually going anywhere) and full of pop culture, literary, and political references. It's sometimes very funny and occasionally annoying when you realize Beatty's references aren't always accurate (maybe that doesn't matter in satire, but . . .). My son, who has lived in Japan for more than 5 years and studies Japanese literature was somewhat disturbed by inaccurate references to that nation; I got worked up over the way in which he presented the Supreme Court--not that he was criticizing the Court (see quote below for a pretty accurate critique of what happens at the Court) but that he did it in a way that inaccurately represented how it works (the defendant does not sit at the table with the attorneys!!). Despite the annoyances, I found The Sellout a worthwhile read but be warned--the language is rough and may offend some readers.

I've read three Rabih Alameddine novels and each is completely different from the others. The Angel of History is the story of Jacob, a gay Yemeni poet living in San Francisco. All of his friends died in the early years of the AIDS epidemic. Following that disaster, he was confined to a mental hospital for some time, but has been healthy for a decade when he feels himself starting to slip into mental illness again. As he waits to be seen at a hospital, he reflects on his early life--years in a whorehouse with his mother, followed by time in a Christian boarding school in Lebanon (sent there by his father)--as well as his turbulent relationship with his long-dead partner. This may sound rather normal for a plot--but Satan and Death are debating his fate and 14 Middle Eastern angels are watching over him. Yes, it's unusual--I'm in awe of Alameddine's creativity and skill. Recommended.

At the beginning of A Gentleman in Moscow, the Bolsheviks sentence Count Alexander Rostov to house arrest in a small attic room in the Metropol, a Moscow hotel in which he previously lived in a luxurious suite. His crime? Writing a poem the Bolsheviks disapproved of. He builds a life within the hotel, becoming the headwaiter in the hotel's fine dining restaurant, adopting the daughter of a young woman who disappears looking for her exiled husband, and constructing a family of those who work in the hotel. His adoptive daughter is a gifted musician, a fact that eventually calls for action. Although Rostov's life is shaped by larger political events, the book isn't really about those events--it's about one person's effort to give his life meaning in constrained circumstances. Recommended.

Anthropologist August is back in Brooklyn for her father's funeral. It's her first visit in many years and, when she sees an old friend, it prompts her to reflect on growing up in the borough in the 1970s. She, her brother, and her father lived in an apartment; her father, a member of the Nation of Islam, was strict about what the children could do and who they could hang out with. But eventually, August became part of a small group of four close friends and her memories of that friendship are the core of Another Brooklyn, which explores themes of friendship, memory, and family. Woodson's language is poetic and the book is short, though I felt like it didn't quite add up to as much as I thought it would. In other words, I'm torn about recommending it.

I found Orhan's Inheritance interesting because it's about a topic I know little about--the Armenian genocide. The book vacillates between the present, when 30-something Turk Orhan is trying to find the woman to whom his grandfather left their family home to so he can convince her to sign it over to him and World War I, when the atrocities against the Armenians occurred (these events also explain his grandfather's actions). The story set in World War I is grueling, but the contemporary story is equally important, since it deals with those who remember and those who choose to forget or deny. The writing is competent but not fabulous, but I'd still recommend the book because of the important content.

My son recently asked if I had read much Don DeLillo and I could only think of one of his books that I had read, so when Zero K was available on Overdrive, I downloaded it. It sounded fascinating, dealing with a son's response to his father and stepmother's decision to be cryogenically preserved at a remote and weird compound where the son has a series of bizarre experiences as a waits to bid first his stepmother and then his father good-bye. DeLillo waxes philosophical about death, life, and the varying ways in which people make decisions about them. But neither those musings nor the book held much meaning. Not recommended.


Classics
Dubliners, by James Joyce

I know I risk losing all credibility as a reader by saying that I disliked Dubliners, but . . . I disliked Dubliners. Joyce presents 15 stories or sketches about residents of Dublin at the turn of the 20th century. Maybe he captured this type of grubby existence first and I am just late to the party, but I feel like I have read this all before and don't gain anything new from Joyce's work. Sorry . . . but not recommended.

Young Adult
Me Being Me Is Exactly as Insane as You Being You, by Todd Hasak-Lowy

This YA novel (definitely for teenagers rather than good readers in elementary or early middle school) is the story of Darren Jacobs, a teenage boy whose parents are recently divorced, whose older brother is away at college (where he is not doing well), and whose social life goes from largely imagined to requiring juggling two girlfriends. The book is presented as a series of lists (text message exchanges between the Jacobs brothers, mothering strategies used by Darren's mom, manifestations of nervous excitement, facts about Rachel and Darren's relationship, etc.), a device that is engaging at first but becomes tedious as the book lumbers along for 600 pages!  If the book were half the length, I might be able to recommend it, but at this length . . . nope!

Nonfiction
The Fame Lunches: On Wounded Icons, Money, Sex, the Brontes, and the Importance of Handbags, by Daphne Merkin
Still Foolin' 'Em, by Billy Crystal
Upstream, by Mary Oliver

The the essays in Daphne Merkin's collection vary from celebrity profiles to serious book reviews to commentaries on family dysfunction and pop culture. The book reviews are the best part of the book--although many of them seem to be more about proving Merkin's knowledge of the subject or author of the book being reviewed than critiquing the book. I found Merkin's personality annoying. She mocks Joyce Maynard for having spilled too much of her inner life but writes about her own family issues and sex. She refers to someone as having "Oriental" eyes. And she repeatedly mocks Midwesterners (I do not take kindly to such). In addition, she ends her essays with cutesy tag lines like the ones I wrote in high school and college. I won't be reading any more Merkin.

Still Foolin' 'Em is what you'd expect of Billy Crystal's reflections on life and aging: it's funny (but not uproarious) and reflects a deep love of his work and his family. I don't remember any particular wisdom (or jokes) from the book, but I enjoyed it.

Similarly, Upstream is what you'd expect from a book of essays by poet Mary Oliver--reflections on nature, on writing, on writers who inspired her. The nature essays provide a level of detail that is unexpected, however. For example, Oliver describes a spider in its web (including the process of eating a cricket) with astonishing particularity. She also includes a paean to Provincetown, where she lived for many years. And, of course, the language and writing are beautiful and, perhaps it goes without saying, poetic. Recommended, if only for the language.

Pick of the Litter:  Swing Time, by Zadie Smith

Favorite Passages:

And what is that great labor? Out-circling interest, sympathy, empathy, transference of focus from the self to all else; the merging of the lonely single self with the wondrous, never-lonely entirety. This is all. The rest is literature: words, words, words; example, metaphor, narrative, lyricism, sweetness, persuasion, the stress of rhetoric, the weight of catalog.


It is supposed that a writer writes what he knows about and knows well. It is not necessarily so. A writer’s subject may just as well, if not more likely, be what the writer longs for and dreams about, in an unquenchable dream, in lush detail and harsh honesty.

Mary Oliver, Upstream

The reason they don't permit cameras has nothing to do with maintaining decorum and dignity. It's to protect the country from seeing what's underneath Plymouth Rock. Because the Supreme Court is where the country takes out its dick and tits and decides who's going to get fucked and who's getting a taste of mother's milk. It's constitutional pornography in there, and what did Justice Potter once say about obscenity? I know it when I see it.

Paul Beatty, The Sellout

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

What is Novel Conversations reading?

Even though I'm a Novel Conversations dropout, I thought you might like to keep up with what the group is reading, so here's their slate for the next six months:
  • February 6: Her Fearful Symmetry—Audrey Niffenegger
  • March 6: Past Imperfect—Julian Fellows
  • April 3: Empty Mansions, the Life of Huguette Clark—Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell
  • May 1: Year of Wonders—Geraldine Brooks
  • June 5: Commonwealth—Ann Patchett
  • July 11: A Gentleman in Moscow—Amor Towles