Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Sunday, March 29, 2009
A single mother of a ten year old boy who works as a housekeeper is sent by her employer to work for a disabled professor of Mathematics. The professor had suffered a brain injury in a car accident that left him with only 80 minutes of short term memory and he can not remember anything that happened after 1975. He spends his days doing intricate math formulas which he enters into contests. He pins notes to the suit he wears everyday to remind him of what he needs to remember from day to day.
The story, narrated by the housekeeper, revolves around the poignant relationship that develops between the housekeeper, her son and the professor. The professor insists that the boy come to his house everyday after school and nick names him “Root“ because the boy’s head reminded him of the square root sign. But the housekeeper and her son must reintroduce themselves each day to the professor. Despite his memory problems the professor has retained his overwhelming love for numbers and elegant equations. He draws the housekeeper and her son into his beloved world of mathematics by teaching them how to solve equations. And the three discover their common love of baseball. The professor loves the averages and statistics that define the sport and both Root and the Professor love the national team, the “Tigers”.
This unique story is about memory, mathematics, baseball and love. There is an underlying theme throughout the novel asking whether one can truly love without memory. Yoko Ogawa is a writer who knows how to engage a reader with humor and clear, straight forward prose that calms and lures the reader into her world. Whether you are a lover of math or baseball doesn’t matter, Yoko Ogawa has woven these subjects into a beautifully touching story.
Friday, March 27, 2009
Every chapter brings new adventures, new revelations and new scrapes for Ren. And what a cast Tinti has imagined. When was the last time you read a novel that had both a dwarf and a giant as important characters? As Ren and Benjamin travel through New England, getting into and out of trouble, they encounter grave robbers, hired killers, kind souls, evil blackguards...and a mousetrap factory. And of course, as in all good orphan stories, Ren is trying to find his real parents and to learn why they abandoned him.
Tinti's style, unlike Dickens, is quite straightforward and matter of fact. As a result you find yourself accepting without question the unusual events. Dwarf coming down a chimney? Sure, I've got no problem with that. Grave robbers find a live one? Makes perfect sense.
There are certain books I categorize as 'stop-missers'. This refers to my commuting days, when, engrossed in a particularly compelling book, I would miss my stop. "The Good Thief" definitely belongs in this category.
Monday, March 23, 2009
Sunday, March 22, 2009
“Rabbit Run” begins with Harry joining a group of boys playing basketball in an alley. Harry is a young man trapped in a marriage to the girl friend he impregnated three years ago. Harry was the golden boy in high school, a record holding basketball star who was famous throughout the county. But eight years later he finds himself in a depressed town, demonstrating a kitchen gadget called the MagiPeel Peeler in five and dime stores. When his somewhat drunk wife asks him to pick up their son from grandma’s and a bring her pack of cigarettes, Rabbit impulsively leaves town and drives toward Philadelphia listening to song after song on the radio and envisioning his new life.
And so begins the saga of Rabbit running. He doesn’t get very far and is annoyed with a farmer who tells him, “The only way to get somewhere, you know, is to figure out where you’re going before you go there.” This is something Rabbit cannot understand. Harry acts on impulse, wherever it leads, he will go. He returns to town but not to home. He seeks the advice of his basketball coach, a disgraced womanizer, and finds himself in the bed of a local whore. This works for awhile until he gets the call that his wife is giving birth to their second child and he runs to her side.
Updike’s Rabbit is a man who seduces people by his charm and then leaves them. No one has ever told Harry “to grow up”. Yet Harry is overwhelmed by a sense of spiritual emptiness. He tells the minister who is trying to help him, “I do feel that somewhere behind all this (he gestures toward the scenery) there’s something that wants me to find it.”
The story reaches a climax when Harry returns to Janice and makes a feeble effort to rekindle the marriage. For the first time we hear Janice’s voice. But he can’t stay. Again he runs. The shocking tragedy that occurs when Harry leaves is something for which neither Janice nor Harry will accept blame.
John Updike created a character in Harry Angstrom that has become a literary icon. Updike wrote a series of sequels which followed Harry throughout his life, “Rabbit Redux“(1971), “Rabbit is Rich” (1981) and “Rabbit at Rest” (1990). Updike won the Pulitzer Prize for “Rabbit Redux” and “Rabbit is Rich”. John Updike has been praised for writing beautiful prose. His sentences are charged with emotion but always controlled. He was able to capture a decade, the 50’s, with detailed descriptions of a time and place and present a character that you both loved and hated at the same time. It is possible that John Updike may find greater fame posthumously as readers revisit these amazing stories.
There's an interesting discussion of "Rabbit Run" on the Slate Audio Book Club. You might want to listen online or download it. http://odeo.com/episodes/24129596-Slate-s-Audio-Book-Club-Rabbit-Run-by-John-Updike
Friday, March 20, 2009
Father and daughter are unusually close, so her descent into madness is devastating for Greenberg. Her mania is so extreme that she needs hospitalization and powerful psychotropic drugs to control it. Her family grasps for other explanations. Did she take LSD or Ecstasy? Is it just a teenage phase she's going through? But they all eventually have to come to grips with the reality of her manic depression and its treatment. As any parent would, Greenberg relentlessly and guiltily examines his past for ways he may have contributed to her illness. One day, in effort to understand how Sally feels, he even takes a dose of her meds. He describes how he feels ”as if I have been relegated to a bit part in the drama of my own existence and, moreover, I have missed my cue to step onstage”.
I think that losing a child to mental illness must be a worst nightmare for many parents. All of a sudden the traits that you found quirky or charming or creative become just aspects of the psychosis. Greenberg, a freelance writer by profession, must have taken notes as the events unfolded, because his descriptions are so detailed and crisp. His prose manages to be both unsentimental and heartbreaking. This book is a tough read, not because the writing is unclear but because the story of Sally's 'summer of madness' is so hard to bear. But I recommend it to anyone who wants understand the impact of mental illness on both patient and family.
Sunday, March 15, 2009
The first story "False Dawn :The 'Forties", is the sad tale of a young man who is sent by his domineering father on the customary year of travel to enter manhood. His father gives him an honored task to undertake on his travels and all the money he needs to accomplish the task. The young man discovers himself as he travels and uses his new found confidence to accomplish the task with creativity and courage. But when he returns to New York he learns that the world he comes from has no room for creativity and free thinking.
The best known story of the collection is "The Old Maid: The 'Fifties". It is vintage Wharton. A young woman of tenuous social standing has an illegitimate daughter. Her cousin, who has married well, convinces the distraught young woman to let her raise the child. What happens as this mother watches her child grow up and become entangled in the social mores and decorum of old New York is told in the wonderful, intimate and singular style of Edith Wharton who herself was raised on Fifth Ave. in New York in the late 19th century.
"The Spark: The 'Sixties", is the story told by a young man who emulates an older man in his social set. He is not certain what it is about him that he finds so interesting. As the story unfolds we find that the older gentleman was a soldier wounded in the civil war. While recuperating in a hospital in Washington a man came to visit him. It was this chance encounter with a famous man that helped form Mr. Delane’s character and gave him a special aura that set him above the other men in that social set in New York in the 1860’s.
The last story and possibly the most interesting is "New Year’s Day: The 'Seventies". A fire breaks out in the famed Fifth Ave. Hotel. Across the street the esteemed Parrett family are celebrating New Year’s Day. As the large family gathers at the windows to watch the fire they observe a young married woman of their social set hastily leaving the hotel with a man not her husband. The story that follows is one that grips the reader as they learn why Lizzie Hazeldean was in that hotel on that day with Henry Prest. Edith Wharton understood the plight of woman in society in this time in history. She gives her woman characters choices and often the determination and strength to live with those choices.
Edith Wharton was a masterful observer of the customs and codes of New York society in the late 1800’s. I really enjoyed revisiting Edith Wharton with her unique talent to tell a great story.
Saturday, March 14, 2009
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
As has been mentioned in a previous blog, many of the best stories are in fact two stories. This new novel alternates between events at the beginning of the Korean War in Korea in 1950 from the perspective of a Corporal Robert Leavitt; and life in West Virginia in 1959 as it unfolds for Nonie, her niece Lark and her nephew Termite. Lark and Termite are half-siblings, the children of Nonie’s sister Lola. At the time of the novel, Lark is 17 and Termite is 9. The connection is that Leavitt is Termite’s father (but not Lark’s). The author presents it in a way that is not at all as confusing as I have made it sound.
Each of these four main characters tells a part of the story, and sometimes the same part, from his or her own perspective. This is especially challenging as Termite is severely handicapped - he cannot walk, can barely make some intelligible sounds, and has very limited vision if any. The chapters in his voice have a different cadence but are certainly the work of a creative and sensitive author. It makes you wonder just how much he may perceive (he seems to be especially sensitive to sounds) and if he is frustrated in trying to communicate it. It is a good reminder that lack of perception does not necessarily follow from lack of ability to communicate. Lark’s complete devotion to her half-brother and her selflessness in taking care of him are both heart-warming and heart-breaking.
There is much to satisfy in this novel: history (the incidents at No Gun Ri); just a little magical realism (the new wheel chair); mystery (who is Lark’s father, why are the children being raised by their aunt); and Mother Nature (a devastating flood).
You can find links to author interviews and podcast readings at Phillips' website.
Friday, March 6, 2009
Setting the story in the 50's allows Black to explore the atmosphere of guilt and sexual repression of that era, the male domination of women as well as the power and influence of the Catholic Church. He does a great job of creating a gloomy noir mood in Dublin, where it seems to always be rainy or foggy. And when the scene switches to a millionaire's mansion outside of Boston, it feels a lot like “Citizen Kane”. The characters are not exactly three dimensional, but then that's not really the point in mystery novels. The plot has more than enough twists to keep you turning the pages, and Quirke is very appealing as the flawed hero.
I had some trouble accepting the plausibility of the conspiracy that Quirke eventually uncovers. Could they really have pulled this off, even in the 50's? But Black's prose is a pleasure to read. He's already written two more Quirke mysteries, so if you like this one there's more to enjoy. Banville clearly seems to relish writing in this genre.
Sunday, March 1, 2009
"Three Junes" was Julia Glass’ first novel, written in 2002 and winner of the National Book Award for Fiction. At first I resisted the book because, for some reason, I didn’t think I wanted to read a book about three women named June. But “Three Junes” is not about three women named June. The novel is divided into three short stories that take place in the month of June in 1989,1995 and 1999. Each story stands on its own but is connected to the others. The opening story, “Collies” was first written as a novella. The novel is the story of a Scottish family that takes place over a decade and the family characters reappear in each story.
The story begins as Paul McLeod, the patriarch of the family, travels to Greece to find himself after his wife of thirty years has died. In the third person narrative we relive the past with Paul as he attempts to understand his complicated marriage and surprisingly finds a new life that he never would have imagined. Julia Glass writes with subtle humor as she describes, through Paul’s eyes, the absurdities of a tour of middle aged travelers led by a feckless, young, self absorbed tour guide on the make.
The second story takes us to Scotland and the McLeod family home, Tealing. Paul has died and his three grown sons have come to bury their father. This reunion is narrated by Fenno, the eldest son, who has moved to New York City. Fenno is a wonderful voice as he takes us back and forth from his structured, expatriate life as a gay bookstore owner in Greenwich Village to a series of family and personal revelations, at Tealing, that threaten to unravel his life. The characters in this section are the most interesting and developed as the story travels back and forth from New York to Scotland.
The final story takes place in a summer home on Long Island where Fenno meets Fern, a young woman who his father became infatuated with on his tour of Greece. This story brings the book to a satisfying conclusion.
“Three Junes” is a story of love in all its different and complicated forms. It is essentially about the love that exists between a husband and wife, between parents and children, between lovers, and poignantly between animals and their owners. In her first novel Julia Glass has shown a talent for developing strong characters, putting them in exciting places and writing a compelling story.