Saturday, July 1, 2017

Shaking It Up in June

June's reading got off to an unusual start for me, with a violent Western and a zombie novel (I'm so out of it zombie-wise I didn't even realize it was a zombie novel until I was almost done). Luckily, it ended on a more positive note . . . but it took awhile.


Pretty Baby, by Mary Kubica

Pretty Baby is more of a thriller than a mystery. Social worker Heidi sees an apparently homeless teenage girl and her baby on the train and becomes concerned. After a few meetings, she invites Willow (the girl) and Ruby (her baby) to stay at her home. Heidi's husband Chris and daughter Heidi are not excited, and Heidi's subsequent behavior justifies their hesitation, as she becomes obsessed with the baby. As one might expect, Willow has had some very difficult times; although Kubica likely thinks we will not expect other aspects of the denouement, some of the intended surprises are completely predictable. Mediocre at best.


Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy
Zone One,by Colson Whitehead
The Boat Rocker, by Ha Jin
Everybody's Fool, by Richard Russo
The Mothers, by Brit Bennett
Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Eastbaum
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut
A House Among the Trees, by Julia Glass

Blood Meridian is the story of an unnamed teenager who travels the borderlands in 1849-1850 with the notorious Glanton gang. I could not discern any actual plot--just a series of violent episodes. When I told my son the literary scholar that I hated the book and thought the persistent violence became boring, he made the case that the writing is so lyrical that the plot and characterizations don't matter--it's all about the beauty of the language. I was not convinced.

Said son somehow knew when I told him I was reading a book titled Zone One that it was a zombie novel, something I had not realized. I thought it was a post-apocalyptic story in which people ate each other because they were starving. Yes, sometimes I am clueless. It is a post-apocalyptic story--the world has been ravaged by disease, and now Buffalo (the new government) is marketing areas as safe. But protagonist Mark Spitz knows this is not true, as he is a "sweeper," working to clean out Zone One in Manhattan to make it safe for rehabitation. Whitehead, better known for his 2016 The Underground Railroad (my favorite book of the year), uses the zombie apocalype genre to satirize 21st-century American life, which (I assume--since I've never read another zombie book) elevates Zone One above other zombie books. Worth reading--but it won't be on my best of 2016 list.

The Boat Rocker was another book that made me feel somewhat dumb, as I constantly felt that I needed to know more about publishing in China to understand the story (I kept wondering if it was intended as satire or a serious story, suggesting I have some shortcomings as a Ha Jin reader). The book's protagonist is Chinese expatriate (he's just become a U.S. citizen, which has given him a sense of some security) Feng Danlin, who is a reporter with a news agency that serves the Chinese diaspora. When his boss assigns him a story involving his ex-wife, Yan Haili, he is concerned--and rightly it turns out--that this may be a bad idea. Haili, who aspires to be a novelist but is a terrible writer, is conspiring with the Chinese government and high-placed publishers in China to capitalize on 9/11 to create a bestseller (it's more complicated, but I'll leave it at that). Danlin's reporting draws him into conflict with powerful interests in China, and the outcome is not positive. If you're interested in China and/or journalism, worth your time. Otherwise, I'd stay away.

Everybody's Fool is a sequel to Richard Russo's Nobody's Fool, which, nearly 25 years ago, introduced readers to Sully Sullivan and North Bath. Sully is again a character, but less central; the sequel gives greater attention to Doug Raymer, a butt of many of Sully's pranks in Nobody's Fool, but now the chief of police. This is vintage Russo, with a bit of the paranormal (Doug has a voice in his head that sometimes takes over his actions and speech) thrown in. The ending surprised me with its relentless positivity. A fun read but not one that will change your life.

Several reviewers had The Mothers in their lists of best books of 2016, but I had been avoiding it because I had seen it described as an "anti-abortion screed." Well, I finally got around to reading it, and I did not find it such. It's the story of a teenage couple, Nadia and Luke, and Nadia's best friend Aubrey. Nadia becomes pregnant and has an abortion--but that's only one piece of the story. Yes, the decision does bother Luke, a pastor's son, as he grows older, but Nadia never wavers from her belief that it was the right decision. The story is about friendship, betrayal, relationships with parents, and finding one's true path in life. The Mothers of the title are a group of older "church ladies," who act as a Greek chorus in the narration--this trope could have been overdone, but Bennett employs it skillfully, allowing it to convey the judgment being passed on the teens. I ended up liking The Mothers quite a bit.

The same cannot be said of Hausfrau, which is the story of an American woman, Anna, who is living in the Zurich suburbs with her rather repressive Swiss husband and three children (the youngest of whom is not the husband's). Anna feels isolated and seems to use affairs as an antidote to that isolation. In addition to the current narrative, we get flashbacks to earlier times in her life and glimpses into her therapy sessions. It's hard to like a book with such a sullen main character who makes idiotic decisions; by the end, we recognize that the author wants us to draw parallels with Anna Karenina, but the similarities are only on the surface. Not recommended.

Station Eleven shares with Zone One the premise that disease has brought the world's institutions to a halt--but the similarity ends there. Survivors in Station Eleven are working to rebuild--one community develops in an airport; another, nomadic, group brings Shakespeare and classical music to small settlements; a charismatic leader forms a cult with nefarious goals; a former paparazzo training to be an EMT when the plague hit becomes the doctor in a settlement.  Unbeknownst to them, members of each of these communities are connected through their past relationship with an actor who died on the first day of the plague (although, ironically, he died of a heart attack); two of the central characters share an additional link in their devotion to a comic book drawn by the actor's first wife. The book is about the nature of humanity and how culture and relationships are essential to meaningful human survival. The author does not tie the characters neatly in the end (for the most part, they never discover their connections); in fact, she does not create a neat ending at all and the book is the better for it. Definitely recommended.

Over the past several years, I've been trying to read Kurt Vonnegut's work, something I somehow missed out on in my youth. Breakfast of Champions is the story of two men on a collision course: Dwayne Hoover, a deranged and wealthy car dealer in Indiana, and Kilgore Trout, a science fiction writer whose only success has been due to pornography publishers including his stories in their works as a vehicle for nude pictures. Part of the book is the story of Hoover's descent into madness. The other is Trout's hitchhiking trip to appear at an art convention in Hoover's hometown. When they meet, Hoover becomes convinced that one of Trout's novels, in which the Creator tells the reader he is the only person with free will on Earth, is true and goes on a rampage around his hometown. Vonnegut places himself in the book as the author, explaining why he made certain decisions. As usual, the tone is satirical; while I appreciated the satire of the wealthy, environmental destruction, and race relations, I must be getting old because I found Vonnegut's style rather gross. Ergo, I can't say I loved the book.

I'm a fan of Julia Glass and A House Among the Trees did not disappoint. The book has three narrators: Tommy Daulair, the assistant to famed children's author Mort Lear, who has recently died, leaving her in charge of his estate (Lear, who reportedly was inspired by Maurice Sendak, is very much a major character in the book); Nick Greene, the actor who will play Mort in a movie about his life and is trying to get to know Mort post-mortem; and Merry Galarza, a recently divorced museum director who thought Mort's estate would be left to her museum and is consequently in a tailspin. Glass weaves their stories together skilfully, moving in time and space without ever losing the reader. While the book explores many topical issues--AIDS, trends in children's literature, single parenthood, child abuse, the role of art and how it is created, and more--to me it's most essentially about the search for home. Highly recommended.


Molly on the Range, by Molly Yeh
The Nine, by Jeffrey Toobin

Molly on the Range is a memoir/cookbook combination based on a blog--no, not a new idea. However, Molly Yeh is immensely likable and her story of moving from suburban Chicago to New York City (to attend Juilliard) and then to a beet farm on the North Dakota-Minnesota border is rather charming. But, sadly, I didn't find many of her recipes appealing. So I'm glad I read the book and equally glad I didn't buy it.

I'm a little late getting to The  Nine, which came out in 2007. It is a look behind the scenes at the Supreme Court, focusing primarily on what might be considered the Sandra Day O'Connor years. Among the interesting topics Toobin, a staff writer at The New Yorker, covers are the processes of nominating justices (especially in the Clinton and GW Bush administrations), the factors that kept the Court a moderate organization despite the efforts of conservatives to change its nature (this, Toobin makes clear, began to change with the appointments of Roberts and Alito), and how the process of building a majority occurs. Of course, the portrayals of the justices are also interesting--I was perversely happy to read that Scalia was a jerk disliked by his colleagues. I was also surprised to read that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was quiet and not very engaged with the other justices--we have all come to see her as more fierce, and perhaps that's a post-Roberts development. Definitely worth reading.

Pick of the Litter: A House Among the Trees and Station Eleven

Favorite Passages:

There were one quadrillion nations in the Universe, but [the United States] was the only one with a national anthem which was gibberish sprinkled with question marks.

Not even the President of the United States knew what that was all about. It was as though the country were saying to its citizens, "in nonsense is strength."

Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

First we only want to be seen, but once we're seen, that's not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered.

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

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