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!

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.

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.

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.

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