Friday, October 31, 2008


When you buy a used book you hold an object with a history you will never know. How many people have held and read this book before you, and what was going on in their lives as they read it? I asked myself those questions when I opened a used copy of The All of It by Jeannette Haien. Here's the inscription I found on the inside cover: “Hannilie – This is a quince of a book – one of a kind like Isak Dinesen's. I hope the hurting has stopped & that you can savour this timeout. Pick”. Wow! First of all, what kind of names are Hannilie and Pick? How can a book be like a quince? And was Hannilie hurting because Pick had just dumped her (euphemistically known as a “timeout”), or was she taking time off from work to recover from foot surgery and her loyal friend Pick was providing her with reading material? And did she in fact “savour” this book?

Well... she might have. This slim volume (145 pages) is really a long short story. And 'story' is definitely the right word for it, since the bulk of the book is the story that widow Enda Dennehy tells Father Declan as they sit by the body of her late husband Kevin in the remote village of Roonatellin on the western coast of Ireland, where the couple has lived for over 50 years. Except that Kevin is not her husband. He has revealed this secret to the priest on his deathbed, but it is left to Enda to tell “the all of it” as they sit through a long afternoon waiting for mourners to arrive. Bracketing Enda's story is another one that at first seems unrelated. Father Declan is attempting to catch a fish. It's a cold rainy day, the midges are biting, and the priest is using every lure in his arsenal to try to land a salmon. His reverie as he fishes leads us into Enda and Kevin's story, and near the book's end we are returned to the priest on the riverbank. He struggles to balance his sympathy for Enda with his need to condemn her sin.

Haien's style is subtle and elegant. She asks hard questions about what it means to lead a moral life, and about what compromises life can impose. There is also much humor in the book, and beautiful descriptions of rugged coast of County Mayo. I don't know what “hurting' Hannilie was hoping to escape, but I think this book has the subtle power to distract her from pains, whether physical or emotional.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Through the Eyes of a Child

If I could remember the source that directed me to this book, I would definitely go back for more. Call It Sleep by Henry Roth is an extraordinary book on many levels. Roth came to the US in 1909 when he was three and lived in the slums on the Lower East Side. He attended City College of New York and published this novel in 1934. But that was a time when books were hard to sell and, despite critical acclaim, the book virtually disappeared. For reasons that I didn't explore, the paperback version was published in 1964 and sold millions of copies. It was the first paperback ever to be reviewed on the front page of the NY Times Book Review.

No surprise: the narrative is set in 1907 - 1909 on the Lower East Side. For 441 pages, we follow the fortunes and misfortunes of Albert and Genya Schearl and their son David. They are recently arrived Jewish immigrants. Albert is angry and brutal; Genya mild and loving. You wonder how they came to be wed - a secret revealed toward the end of the book. The narrator is 7-year-old David. Roth has done a masterful job of taking the reader inside David's head to view the world in all its terror, magic and mystery as seen by a young boy. Many passages read like a stream of consciousness moving, leaping in half completed phrases from one thought to another. If you have been the parent of a boy this age, you will know just how accurate this is. More than once I found myself smiling with recognition.

It's a wonder that any child survives the cruelties of his fellows and even of adults. In his efforts to fit in to his new country and to find friends, David has been hurt and disappointed so many times that his mantra becomes: don't trust, don't trust, don't trust. His only solace is from his mother (and hers from him).

I should pause here to say that one of the significant features of this book is the way in which Roth succeeds in portraying the many language variations in this population. Imagine trying to write the sounds of broken English with a New York accent. It is really quite funny - and fun - to decode the meaning. It is almost like translating a foreign language. And then, when David goes to Hebrew school, there really is a foreign language. A knowledge of Hebrew and Yiddish would definitely add another level of enjoyment to reading this book but there is more than enough to satisfy the non-Jewish reader. As David is introduced to some of the biblical stories, we see him struggle to understand the concept of God and angels. For any adult working with young children it is a caution to keep in mind how literally a child hears and interprets what we say. For a sensitive child with an over-active imagination, there can be dangerous consequences. For David, it came with the story of Isaiah. In seeking his own religious experience, in trying to find the "light", David risks great physical harm. Roth's language and technique in this episode are quite literally poetic.

For all its length, this is a book that can make the hours of a long flight fly by (no pun intended). And in the Afterword, there is a very interesting discussion of the difference between bilingualism and diglossia! Although Roth published other works much later in his life, this is his masterpiece. I am so glad that I found this book.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Killing Mom Was Easy

Alice Sebold’s first novel “Lovely Bones” is the story of the rape and murder of a young girl narrated by the girl herself from the grave. This novel was very well received and although I liked the novel, most people and critics really loved this book. Her second novel “Almost Moon” deals with a topic as difficult as "Lovely Bones". Alice Sebold has a knack of drawing you into her stories from the very first page. “Almost Moon” begins with the sentence, “When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.”

The story takes place over 24 hours, as Helen Knightly, the narrator and divorced mother of two grown daughters, begins by relating how this gruesome act of murdering her mother came to be. From there, she begins to reflect on her strange life and how it brought her to kill her mother. It is an interesting, if not sometimes incoherent story. Poor Helen grew up in a house with a mother who never left the house without blankets or towels over her head and that didn’t happen unless absolutely necessary, and a father who adored his wife, spent time in a psychiatric facility and ultimately killed himself in front of his wife. Growing up Helen glibly referred to her mother as “crazy”. But, when Helen had to confront a group of angry neighbors, alone, for something unspeakable that her mother had done she found refuge with the kindly neighbor, Mr. Forest. He gave the sixteen year old Helen a drink and told her, “You know, Helen, your mother is mentally ill”. It was the first time Helen could put a real name on what was wrong with her family.

What Helen did after she murdered her mother becomes somewhat bizarre. She puts her mother in the freezer, calls her ex-husband in California who immediately comes to her rescue after many years of separation, and has sex with her best friend’s son. Helen is on a roll, and we’re not sure where she is going with all this. There is definitely an element of suspense in this story as we wonder whether Helen will get away with this strange murder. The story itself is Helen looking back on her life and trying to justify what she did. But as the events unfold and the reader comes to the end of the story the only thing that emerges as true is that Helen killed her mentally ill mother because the Helen we have come to know is as mentally ill as her mother. After reading Alice Sebold’s two novels I have come to the conclusion that Ms. Sebold is clearly dealing with some demons of her own.

Remembering Adolescence

Lorrie Moore is a writer recommended by Louise Erdrich, and this summer I read her book, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? The title alone made it worth reading and this short novel has both fans and critics. Berie Car, in the midst of a failing marriage, remembers her best friend Sils, and their last summer together in a small Adirondack tourist town. Life was thrilling, ordinary, sweet and bitter, all experienced in a "bleakly funny state of suspended collapse." As an awkward, skinny, yearning 15 year old, she rejects her family, and idolizes Sils, who is sassy, prettier, and sexually precocious. Berie recalls Sils in a series of flashbacks. They work together in an amusement park, Berie as a cashier, Sils as Cinderella. They are irreverent, wild, curious and rebellious, stealing in to a local bar, sneaking cigarettes. When Sils becomes pregnant, Berie develops a plan to fund the inevitable abortion. But she is caught filching money at the amusement park and is shipped off to a summer camp. We then fast-forward abruptly to her adult life in a failing marriage, and this brief part seems disconnected and unrelated to Berie's adolescent feelings and perceptions.

Moore's writing, and the clarity of Berie's memories, from cottage cheese for breakfast, to the emotional details of Berie's experience of lost innocence is the writer's strength. She uses droll wordplay humorously at times and also evokes genuine sadness. It's a bitter, often funny hymn to lost adolescence and a poignant tale. Moore skillfully illuminates an awareness of how life's significant events can often prove disappointingly anticlimactic. I thought about her memories and perceptions of these events for a long time after reading this book, remembering my own adolescence. As a result, I look forward to reading more of Lorrie Moore's books.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Amongst the Irish

"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”' As we all know, that's the first line of Anna Karenina. But I wonder...did Tolstoy know any Irish families? The Irish seem produce a very specific type of dysfunctional family. It's not hard to find a common threads of misery in families described by Frank McCourt, Roddy Doyle, Edna O'Brien and even Irish-American Eugene O'Neill. Here are the broad strokes: the father is an angry embittered bully; the wives and daughters are cowering doormats; the sons either escape to England or are crushed by the weight of their father's cruelty.

So why did I decide to read an Irish author? That's the other side of the coin – the Irish are wonderful writers. Their contribution to world literature is disproportionate to their small island's population. Joyce, Beckett, Wilde, Shaw – the list is long and distinguished. But I had never heard of John McGahern until a friend recommended him. Like many of his predecessors McGahern had his problems with his native country. His book The Dark was banned there because of its frank depiction of sex and of abuse by the clergy, and as a result he lost his teaching position.

McGahern's best known book, which was nominated for the Booker prize in 1990 (Possession by A.S. Byatt won), is Amongst Women. The tyrant father is widower Michael Moran, who fought heroically for the IRA during the Irish War for Independence, and seems to have been nursing a grudge ever since (“Anything easy and pleasant aroused deep suspicion”).. He has retreated to his small farm of Great Meadow in rural Ireland near Sligo, where he raises his five children, disgusted with the “crowd of small-minded gangsters “ who now run the country. As the story opens the eldest son Luke has already left for England to escape his father's brutality, and the remaining four survive by learning to read his moods and keep their heads down - “all they had ever been able to do in the face of violence was to bend to it.”

Moran marries again, to the much younger Rose, and she provides a buffer between the children and their father's anger, even as she endures his malevolence without complaint. I mean, the woman is a saint. We follow the lives of the remaining four children as they leave home and make their own lives in London and Dublin. The youngest son challenges his father's power and thus escapes his domination. But the three daughters retain a fierce tribal loyalty to their father. They make frequent return visits to Great Meadow, sometimes trailing boyfriends, spouses and children who all fall short in Moran's estimation. What draws them back? The beauty of the rural landscape certainly appeals to them. But more than that, their isolated childhood under the sway of a bullying father seems to have created among them a sort of secret society even more powerful than their Catholicism. The father is eventually overwhelmed and diminished by the sheer persistence of his daughters' devotion.

Catholic readers will no doubt recognize that the title refers not just to the females in the household but to the words of Hail Mary, recited nightly as part of the mandatory Rosary that Moran leads. His women are complex – strong and weak, stubborn and bending – always drawn to a man they love and fear. McGahern has created a fierce angry patriarch – an Irish King Lear whose kingdom is his obstinant spirit. Even as I gritted my teeth with annoyance at this pig-headed jerk, I admired McGahern's ability to create a living, breathing universe with his spare prose.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Which One is the Good Doctor?

It turns out that in the constellation of writers who chronicle post-apartheid South Africa there are more than two stars. We are all familiar with Nadine Gordimer and J. M. Coetzee. I recently discovered a third: Damon Galgut. Galgut was born in South Africa in 1963.

Some background: Apartheid was enforced by the government of South Africa between 1948 and 1990. During that period certain impoverished and underdeveloped areas of land were set aside by the government for the "self-determination" of its various black "nations". Galgut's novel The Good Doctor is set in a failing hospital in such a remote rural homeland post-apartheid. It is the story of two white doctors who are at opposite ends of the spectrum on almost every dimension. Laurence, newly arrived at the hospital, is young, idealistic, just out of medical school and has chosen this for his one year of mandatory community service. Frank is older, cynical, has been at the hospital for seven years, and came there in the aftermath of his wife's affair with his partner in his medical practice. The circumstances at the hospital are such that the two men have to share their living quarters. The story of their time together is told by Frank.

The hospital's finances, its physical plant, the town itself: all are in desperate and depressing shape. Laurence's efforts at improvement are touching but doomed; not so for his optimism and sense of duty which are undiminished. Both men become involved with the same local woman with disasterous results for all. Players on both sides of the previous apartheid-era conflict re-appear bringing back with them some of the previous tensions.

Many novels present their characters with moral dilemmas and explore their choices. But somehow the choices in this particular period of history in South Africa seem to have an added dimension and poignancy. Perhaps it is because we here in the US are so geographically and culturally removed. We are fortunate to have this talented writer to help us toward a better understanding of the physical and moral landscape of his native country.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Suspense at the End of WWII

We were recently at the library seeking an engaging Audio Book CD for a long car trip. The Good German by Joseph Kanon (Los Alamos, Alibi, The Prodigal Spy) filled the bill perfectly for us. Jake, an American correspondent who spent time in Berlin before the war, has returned to write about the Allied triumph at the approaching end of the war. His hidden agenda is to search for his German lover Lena, who was married to a Nazi and left behind four years earlier. The quest to find her leads to a series of events initiated by the unexplored discovery of an American soldier found dead in Potsdam with huge quantities of Russian currency on his body. Investigating his death, digging for information in the wrong places, upsetting the military authorities, searching for Lena without discretion, moves him through a compelling tale involving love, murder, espionage, increasing paranoia and tension. Along the way the author explores some important ethical questions about justice and good vs. evil during wartime, and a time of peace.

The Good German is expertly narrated by Stanley Tucci, who "does accents" quite effectively. It was also made into a movie starring George Clooney, Cate Blanchett and Toby Maquire. I anticipate viewing the movie, hoping that they did justice to the book. Kanon vividly and skillfully recreates the city of post-war Berlin, the destruction wrought by the bombing, the loss and emptiness felt by several characters living among the rubble. Because of his vivid descriptions of the city, I recommended it to a friend recently back from Berlin. For good gripping entertainment, it's well worth your time.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Adrift in the Desert

“The Sheltering Sky” by Paul Bowles was first published in 1949. It was his first novel and it entered the New York Times best-seller list on January 1,1950. He subsequently wrote three other highly acclaimed novels. Paul Bowles was also a well known composer, a travel writer, a short story writer, a translator and a poet. He died in Morocco in 1999 at the age of 89.

“The Sheltering Sky” is the story of Port and Kit Moresby, a young, affluent married couple from New York, who consider themselves travelers but not tourists. They had crossed the Atlantic with the intention of keeping as far as possible from the places which had been touched by the war. They were able to find boat passage to North Africa. The Moresbys were traveling with their so-called friend Tunner. The three travelers find themselves drifting in the strange cities and desolate desert of North Africa. They encounter the Lyles a strange English twosome who may or may not be mother and son. The travelers have little understanding of the alien culture of the people they encounter in these cities. While Port wants to immerse himself in the solitude of the desert, Kit seems to be terrified of it. There is an emotional void in the marriage of Kit and Port, and Kit turns to Tunner for a connection. Then Port suggests they separate from Tunner and travel by bus to Bou Noura. Once in Bou Noura he convinces Kit to move onto El Ga’a, where it is a lot warmer because Port is cold all the time. On the bus to El Ga’a Port develops a fever and chills. When they arrive in El Ga’a they discover there is an epidemic of meningitis. A young Arab helps them find a truck to take them yet further into the desert to the city of Sba. There Kit finds the French “Chef De Poste” who gives them a room, diagnoses Port with typhoid, gives Kit medicine to administer to Port every two hours and leaves them on their own.

Here in the remote city of Sba, Port’s alienation escalates as he becomes lost in the delirium of his fever. When the inevitable happens, Kit escapes reality by losing herself in the wilderness of the desert and submerges herself into the alien culture she fears, until she too is lost.

Paul Bowles’ vivid descriptions of the desert, the heat, the light, the dust, the sounds, make it come alive to the reader with all its beauty and terror. Some critics have called the desert the main character in this novel of “psychological terror”. Bowles describes in beautiful prose what can happen when man inevitably succumbs to the all encompassing power of the unfathomable desert.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Prairie Home

After reading a serious book for our monthly Book Club meeting (see Anna's blog next Sunday) I was ready for something on the lighter side. A visiting friend recommended The Quality of Life Report and even gave me her copy. The narrator is Lucinda Trout, an associate producer for a local New York television magazine show called New York Up Early. Twenty-nine and living in a one-room one-window apartment on the Upper West Side, she returns from an assignment reporting on meth addiction in the Midwest and persuades her boss to let her move to Prairie City for a year to report on “quality of life” - “New Yorkers think they don't have it (or must pay a lot for it)”. The initial appeal of Prairie City USA is apparent – affordable apartments, relaxed lifestyle, available men (preferably one who resembles Sam Shepard). She plans to report to her New York audience on the joys of life on the prairie – its sweeping vistas, its charming farmhouses, its local characters.

At first Prairie City seems to fit Lucinda's preconceived notions – the women wear batik and dangly earrings and serve deviled eggs and Rice Krispie treats. But their lives are far more complex than any stereotype. And when Lucinda falls for her own version of Sam Shepard named Mason Clay (great name!), and moves into an old drafty farmhouse with him, his kids, various animals and a bitter cold prairie winter, she has to face her own quality of life issues.

Daum has a caustic sense of humor, and she skewers both the pretensions of Lucinda's New York friends and the platitude-filled pep talks of her Prairie City ones. And she doesn't spare Lucinda herself, whose attempts to make people fit her notion of them fail miserably. This is a book that made me laugh but tackled some serious issues as well. A good read for the beach or an airplane.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Word for Word

For certain fortunate authors their works will have more forms of life than just the printed page. There is the regular movie option with the script usually written by someone else and judged more - or less - successful, usually “less” from the perspectives of those who have read the book. There is the audio book format, sometimes read by the author, more often read by someone else. More recently the printed word has found its way into an e-book to be read on one’s computer or on a handheld device such as a Kindle. And then there is Word for Word.

This is a professional theater company in San Francisco that stages short stories and book chapters, performing every word (including “and he said” “and she said”) the author has written. Their most recent production, widely acclaimed by the critics and audiences, was of three short stories by Tobias Wolff taken from his latest collection, Our Story Begins. This anthology includes 21 previously published stories as well as 10 new ones. The stories in this production were “Sanity,” “Down to Bone,” and Firelight.” They are a mixture of comedy, poignancy, grief, love, reflection, and a little sex. The same cast of 5 actors performed all three stories, though not all 5 appeared in each story.

If you are not familiar with this company, you may be wondering whether, with the content already taken care of (I was tempted to say “spoken for”), there remains any real avenue for creativity. All I can say is that the staging has to be seen to be believed. The sets, costumes and choreography all combine to bring these stories to another level of meaning from just the written word. For example, in “Down to Bone” (one of the previously unpublished stories), the son who has come to visit his dying mother has rented a “lollipop-red Miata.” To say that the Miata is portrayed by a sexy young woman in a red vinyl mini dress does not begin to convey the success of this interpretation.

As this is the second time that Word for Word has performed some of Tobias Wolff’s stories, I can only hope that there will be more. I certainly recommend that you add Word for Word to your “reading.”

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Listening to Dogs

Every once in awhile you read a book that you love, one that is very difficult to put down. “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” by David Wroblewski is a book that I absolutely loved and will recommend it to everyone. This is David Wroblewski's first novel. It is the story of the Sawtelle family who has raised a fictitious breed of dogs on their Wisconsin property for three generations. Gar and Trudy are the young couple who have inherited the business from Gar’s father. After having a stillborn baby and a few miscarriages Trudy joyfully gives birth to Edgar, a beautiful, healthy baby boy. But Edgar has no voice. When Gar and Trudy realize that there is nothing that can be done for Edgar, they decide to learn sign language to give him a voice. What they find is that not only can Edgar communicate with them, but he has a special gift of communicating with the dogs they raise, especially Almondine. Trudy and Gar have more or less assigned Almondine to be Edgar’s watchful companion. The incredible bond that develops between Edgar and Almondine is beautifully portrayed by Mr. Wroblewski.

The life they have made, raising, caring for and training these special dogs is one that is very happy and satisfying for the Sawtelles. But the return of Gar’s younger brother, Claude, changes that. Gar tries to help Claude, letting him live with them and giving him work to do. Then Gar and Claude argue and Claude leaves. Not long after Claude leaves, Gar mysteriously collapes on the barn floor and Edgar cannot call for help. Grief consumes Edgar when Claude moves into the house and woos his mother. Edgar believes that Claude had something to do with Gar’s death. When he tries to prove it to his mother, something horrible happens and Edgar has to run away. He takes the three pups he has been training and enters the Chequamegon forest. With no food or shelter, Edgar and the three dogs find abandon cabins that dot the many lakes in the forest and fight for survival. It is a wonderful adventure that proves to be the turning point in Edgar’s coming of age. He makes the difficult decision to return home and to face what waits for him there.

The story is an epic, long and beautifully written. The author’s descriptions of the northern woods of Wisconsin are mesmerizing. Mr. Wroblewski has also borrowed much of the plot line from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”. But, he has used his own imagination and beautiful prose to propel this wonderful story. The chapter where Almondine describes her quest to find Edgar when he ran away was heart wrenching, “She stood broadside in the gravel and turned her head and asked her question. Asked if it had seen her boy. Her essence. Her soul.”

The ending scenes are riveting. Every page is a joy to read and you will close this book with regret that it is finished.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Love in the Fog

How well do you know your spouse? That's the question narrator Pearlie Cook poses in Andrew Sean Greer's novel The Story of a Marriage. In the first line of the book she says: “We think we know the ones we love”. What follows that statement are Pearlie's musings about her life and marriage to her husband Holland. He has been her love since childhood, and she unfolds their story, moving forward and backward in time, her tone restrained but lyrical.

The main portion of the story takes place in the Outer Sunset section of San Francisco in the early 1950's. For those of us who live in San Francisco today, the description of the city seems both familiar and foreign. Playland-at-the-Beach was in its heyday, ladies wore hats and gloves when they took the streetcar downtown, the Seltzer Boy delivered water to porches each morning. This was the 50's of Eisenhower and post war optimism. But Greer also stirs in the darker elements of this era as well. All of the characters are touched by the effects of war, sexual repression and racism

At first Pearlie's life seems idyllic. She is married to an extraordinarily handsome man who dotes on her and their son. But an unexpected visit from a man who is part of her husband's past disrupts this tranquility. But how can I tell you more without giving away the plot? And Greer does such an elegant job of unfolding each new twist that I hate to spoil any of it. The story, which could have become melodramatic in lesser hands, is told quietly, in Pearlie's restrained but emotional voice.

Pearlie's marriage is at the center of the novel, but it is a marriage that is dramatically changed both by the pressures of outside influences and by the secrets that Holland and Pearlie carry within themselves. To tell you more would spoil it. It's a short book – read and enjoy!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Love in the Time of Enlightenment

If I were playing Jeopardy a month ago and the category were The Enlightenment, I wouldn’t have done very well.

For $100: Voltaire
Answer: Who wrote Candide?
For $200: Emilie du Chatelet
Answer: (That’s the buzzer sounding – and me losing).

But now that I have read Passionate Minds by David Bodanis (he also wrote E = mc2) I would have many answers including: Who translated Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica from its original Latin into French? This work and her commentaries were instrumental in advancing the concept of the conservation of energy and fundamental to key eighteenth-century developments in theoretical physics.

If this sounds boring, I can assure you that it is anything but boring. To say that Voltaire and Emilie were lover and mistress vastly understates the contribution of each to the other. Throughout their relationship Emilie was married to someone else but that did not prevent Voltaire and Emilie from living together for years at a time (and from periodically having affairs with others). But they always returned to each other. No one else satisfied their intellectual and spiritual needs like the other. Bodanis paints a vivid picture of life in and around Paris and Versailles in the first half of the eighteenth century, particularly among the aristocracy. And he describes their artistic and scientific achievements in readily understandable terms.

I knew that I would like Emilie because early in this book her father is quoted as saying: “I argued with her in vain, yet she would not understand that no great lord will marry a woman who is seen reading every day.” Because her father’s low income would not provide enough funds to buy all of the books that she wanted, she taught herself to count cards at the gaming tables and won sufficient sums to support her “book” habit. Much later in life when she had accumulated a significant amount of gambling debt, she devised a form of derivatives, contracting with the tax collectors to pay them a small sum of money now for the right to receive their future streams of collections. She then used those contracts to satisfy her debts. This is 1747!

One could describe this as a history book. In addition to Voltaire and Emilie, we meet Richilieu, Diderot, Frederick the Great, Madame de Pompadour, Bernoulli, and Louis XV, among many others. But it is primarily a love story – and a good one.
Read more about this book

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Who is Family?

“Belong to Me” was given to me this summer by a friend. I was on vacation and I had read all the books I had carried with me and since the small town I was staying in did not have a library, and I did not have a car to travel to a bookstore, I was very happy to take donations. “Belong to Me” is Marisa de los Santos' second novel. It is the story of three women. Cornelia and her husband, a successful physician, have moved from New York City to an affluent Philadelphia suburb. Cornelia, the ultimate urbanite, is having problems relating to the other suburban wives. She is especially put off by her neighbor, Piper Truitt. Piper is the quintessential suburban mom, perfect hair, perfect clothes, perfect house, perfect husband and two beautiful, perfect children. When Cornelia offers to go to the farmer’s market with Piper, Piper asks Cornelia to sit in the back, explaining that she does not know how to disable the airbag, and since Cornelia is the size of a twelve year old it would make it unsafe for her to sit in the front! In desperation Cornelia forges a friendship with Lake, a waitress who loves literature and old movies. Lake tells Cornelia she has moved to the town to send her son, Dev, to a high school for gifted children.

Ms. Santos develops three very strong women characters. We watch as Piper’s perfect world begins to crumble. Her beloved best friend, Elizabeth, is diagnosed with rapidly progressing cancer. Piper is the one who steps up to take care of Elizabeth and her family. The trivial things that were so important to Piper fade away and she turns to Cornelia for solace and strength. Lake’s son questions the move across country to this suburban town. He questions the life his mother has set out for him. Was this a ploy to find and confront Dev’s biological father? Lake’s motives for befriending Cornelia become suspect.

It is a story driven by these three strong women characters. Their lives become entangled as their secrets begin to unravel. The chapters dealing with Elizabeth’s cancer are vivid and realistic. The way that Piper changes from a judgmental, intolerable neighborhood bully to a caring, down to earth woman is very well done. Often the complicated storyline becomes contrived. But, Marisa de los Santos’ strong theme of what makes up a family and how belonging, love and friendship are what is really important, make for an enjoyable, recommendable read.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Shanghai Mystery

I don't usually read mysteries, but when a mystery aficionado friend recommended Death of a Red Heroine, I decided to take it along on my vacation. In some ways it is like many in its genre – a big city police detective attempting to solve a murder while battling the interference of his superiors. Does it sound a little like Lush Life, which I blogged in August? But this time the big city is Shanghai, the time is 1990, and Chief Inspector Chen Cao is not your average cop. He's a published poet who supplements his salary by translating English language works, and he often drops quotes from everything from classical Chinese poetry to T.S. Eliot and Matthew Arnold. As head of the Special Case Squad, Homicide Division, he seems to be on the path to success. But when he is assigned to investigate the death of Guan Hongying, a young woman famous as a National Model Worker, politics and police work soon collide. A national model worker is someone who is held up by the Communist Party as a paragon of hard work and devotion to the Party. When Chen and his partner Detective Yu begin to investigate the crime, they soon discover that the victim's life was far more complicated.

Author Qiu Xiaolong was born and raised in Shanghai, and his descriptions of sights, sounds and smells of the city are so vivid that I felt like I was there. Particularly enjoyable are his frequent descriptions of the food that Chen scarfs as he hurries through his day – fried buns from a street vendor or smoked fish head at a hole in the wall restaurant. And then there's the crab banquet that Detective Yu's wife prepares when Chen comes for dinner. It's a fascinating glimpse into the life of the average Chinese worker. Housed in buildings designed for one family but now inhabited by more than a dozen, the residents share a common bathroom, washing area, and kitchen, each family cooking on its own small coal stove.

Inspector Chen tries to believe in the New China, where the excesses of the Cultural Revolution have been corrected, but he runs head on into the machinations of the Communist Party, still trying to protect its image. He and Detective Yu have to cleverly thread their way through this labyrinth. I enjoyed this book both as an entertaining detective novel and as a peek into how China looks from the inside.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

A Gothic Tale

Several of the blurbs on the book jacket of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell use the term “gothic.” After finishing the book, I looked up the word in Wikipedia to find that, with reference to literature, it denotes a combination of both horror and romance. As such, it aptly describes this novel.

There are three main characters – and three voices. The character of the title, Esme, is now in her late 70s. She was confined to a psychiatric hospital by her family when she was 16 and is just now being released because the hospital is closing. Esme’s sister Kitty, who is six years older, suffers from Alzheimer’s and is resident in a nursing home. And then there is Iris, the granddaughter/grandniece of the other two. Iris has been designated the next-of-kin for Esme. With assurances that Esme is non-violent, Iris has taken Esme home with her for the weekend until other arrangements can be made. Iris’ life is further complicated by her relationships with her step-brother Alex and a married lover (part of the romance).

The story rotates among the three women, telling their respective stories in bits and pieces, not always sequentially. I think the author succeeds wonderfully with the voices of Esme and Kitty, less so with Iris'. But then it is really the stories of Esme and Kitty in which we are interested. Why was Esme confined at such a young age? Was her confinement justified? Can we rely on her perceptions? Is she really non-violent? She was locked away for 61 years and abandoned by her family. The descriptions of her treatment and the conditions at the facility are heart-breaking – and horrifying. Kitty’s dialogues seem very disjointed and somewhat non-sensical due to her disease. As children, Kitty and Esme were quite close. Why did Kitty never contact Esme? Does she really suffer from Alzheimer’s or is her mental condition related to something else? What does she mean: “I took it, I took it, and I’ve never told anyone.”?

Kitty and Esme spent their earliest years in India; but with the outbreak of typhoid they return with their parents to Scotland to live in the home of their paternal grandmother. The descriptions of their lives in India, their sea voyage to Scotland, and life with Grandmother are wonderfully written. Kitty is the perfect child and does everything right; Esme is always causing trouble for her family.

Iris arranges to take Esme to see Kitty. I cannot spoil the suspense of what happens at their meeting. You will have to read it for yourself. Perhaps you will understand the ending on first reading. It took me a close re-reading – and it has been haunting me ever since. I think a second reading of the entire book would be even more rewarding.