Friday, December 31, 2010

My Favorites for 2010

I always have trouble narrowing down my annual selection of favorite books. I limit it to books I have blogged (thus eliminating the wonderful “Winter's Bone” blogged by Dorothea and "Half of a Yellow Sun" blogged by Anna) and, as I look at the list, I try to choose those that didn't just entertain me but also left a lasting impression. (It's always a little depressing to have to re-read my blog in order to remember anything about the book). Books that allow me to peek inside a place I've never been (a culture, a profession, a country) always engage me.  And I love a book that offers me a mystery to unravel even as it fascinates me with interesting characters and plot. 

For a lasting impression nothing could top Agatha's Hoff riveting memoir Burning Horses (A Powerful Story), the story of her mother Eva's life in a Hungary turned upside down by World War II.

I read two books where characters worked for newspapers - The Imperfectionists (Reporting From Rome) and Not Untrue and Not Unkind (Reporting From The Congo) – and both offered very different pictures the underside of journalism. 

Two books had me trying to fit together the shifting pieces of a puzzle as I read - Await Your Reply  (Mistaken Identity) and  Mr. Peanut (Marriage and Murder).  And Cloud Atlas (Worth A Second Look) was the literary equivalent of a Russian matryoshka doll – each story opening on to another and then circling back again.

Two short story books gave me what I love about this form - fresh, unexpected glimpses of characters captured like a snapshot - Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It (Short And Bittersweet) and If I loved you I would tell you this (Unexpected Slices).

And if you're just looking for laughs you can't go wrong with Headlong (Country Life).
A stack of of unread books awaits me as I cross into 2011.  Happy New Year and Happy Reading.  Make your own list of 2010 favorites.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Free Kindle Books

I suspect that I am not alone in having this experience. After reading through the "quick start guide" to my new Kindle 3, I was paralyzed trying to decide which book to download first. I was fortunate to go for a run with my friend Gail on the morning after Christmas. Gail has been a long-time Kindle user and lover and offered to send me some links for free Kindle books. Little did I expect such a treasure-trove of information. I just had to share it - with Gail's permission, of course. I know that many of you have been using Kindles for a while so may not find anything new here. But there probably is at least one other "newbie" like myself who can benefit.

If the veterans among you have other tips and suggestions for the Kindle, please share in the Comments below.
Here's what Gail had to say:

"Welcome to the Kindle world. I hope you enjoy it.

1. Here are some free ebook sites, for books in the public domain. I think ManyBooks and Feedbooks get their books from Project Gutenberg, but I found the ManyBooks site easier to navigate than Project Gutenberg, and I could "shop" it from my Kindle. I have not looked at the PG site in a year, so it may have improved.

2. This is an old list of free sites, but it looks like the sidebar links have been updated so the information might still be current. There are so many, I have barely touched the surface in my surfing. There are far more books available than I have time to read, let alone surf.

3. This is a site I have started using only recently. It lists the Amazon books that recently dropped in price. I have also created a list of books that I would like to read. The site tracks the prices for me, and emails me if a book in which I am interested drops in price.

4. This lists the free Kindle books that Amazon offers. It seems to subtract those in the public domain. The list changes frequently, and it is really a toss-up as to whether it is worth checking since there is so much dross.

Happy reading!"

P.S. Here is a link to an interesting article in the Financial Times about the ebook revolution. You may have to register (for free) to read the article.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Writer's Right to Privacy

I found J.M. Coetzee’s latest novel, “Summertime” to be very interesting. The reason I use the word interesting is that the premise is so unusual. The story evolves as the rough draft of a biography of the late John Coetzee, a South African writer, written by an Englishman referred to as Mr. Vincent. The “biography” takes the form of five interviews by Mr. Vincent with people who had known Coetzee in the 1970’s when he was living in a suburb of Capetown with his elderly father. Four of the five interviewees were women who had had a “relationship” with John Coetzee. The fifth, Martin, was a colleague from Coetzee’s teaching days.

The interviews are intriguing and often very amusing. The women often describe Coetzee with the most unflattering and demoralizing rhetoric. The stories the interviewees relate of their own lives are often far more interesting than the life of the J.M. Coetzee, before he became a famous writer.

One might ask, “Why would J.M. Coetzee, the novelist, (who is very much alive in 2010) want to write about a J.M. Coetzee who is somewhat similar to himself but who is dead? and why, in such a strange and unflattering way? It seems that this author, who has received many prestigious awards including the Nobel Prize for Literature, wants to make a statement: “Why are people so interested in a man just because he is a famous writer?” But only J.M. Coetzee could present this question to his readers in such a creative and beautifully written form.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


I don't read a lot of mysteries, and I don't often blog about the ones I do read, because they seem a little lightweight. But I am a fan of Irish mystery writer Tana French. I enjoyed “In The Woods”, which Anna blogged (Psychological Suspense ) and I blogged her second book “The Likeness” (Mirror Image). In her third book, Faithful Place, French returns to grizzled, wisecracking Dublin Undercover Detective Frank Mackey.

Frank is a lonely middle-aged divorced man, whose heart was broken at age nineteen when his true love Rosie Daly, who had promised to run off to England with him, left without him. Except she didn't. Twenty-two years later Rosie's suitcase, containing the ferry tickets for the couple's escape, is found in an abandoned house.

The discovery pulls Frank back to Faithful Place, the grim cul-de-sac in a Dublin area called The Liberties, where he and Rosie grew up, and from which he hoped he had permanently escaped. Frank's family still lives there, and there is no dysfunctional like Irish dysfunctional. As he tells his ex-wife, "You don't meet my family, you open hostilities."

"Faithful Place" is a detective novel, with plot twists and turns, but it is also a dark Roddy Doyle kind of family drama, as Frank is torn by his loyalties to his family and his distrust of them. The family dynamic is so suffocating and toxic that sometimes it was hard to keep reading, but Frank Mackey's voice - sometimes witty, sometimes angry, sometimes heartbreaking - kept me turning the pages.

Friday, December 3, 2010

An Irish Favorite

I think we all have authors that we use as safety nets. We know they won't disappoint us, so when we're going on a trip, or anticipating a long wait or a boring commute, we take them along as a reliable companion. For me William Trevor is one of those safety nets.

First of all, he's Irish, and I'm a sucker for Irish writers. He's prolific, so he's easy to find in my favorite used book store. He's probably best known for his short stories, but his novels are also prize-winning. Last year I read and loved his latest novel “Love and Summer” (see my blog), so I picked up a used copy of his 1998 novel Death in Summer to take along on a trip.

Trevor's characters are never captains of industry or glamorous socialites. They live in small towns or on the fringe of society in big cities. In "Death in Summer" a young widower struggles to care for his infant daughter after the accidental death of his wife. But he is not the only character dealing with disappointment and sadness. The vulnerabilities of the characters seem to draw them to each other, leading to unexpected events. Trevor prose is spare, but it's not a quick read, because he unfolds his story in fragments.

Trevor is not an author for readers who like inspiring characters and uplifting endings. But once again he gave me haunting images of ordinary people touched by loss and by love.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Marriage and Murder

Can you enjoy a book that you're not sure you understand? That's how I felt when I finished Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross. The story revolves around three sets of married couples, which sounds simple enough. But David Pepin, the husband in what I'll call couple number one, is a successful computer game designer who is writing a novel about ... David and Alice Pepin. What's more, both Ross's book and David's book begin in exactly the same way: “When David Pepin first dreamed of killing his wife, he didn't kill her himself. He dreamed convenient acts of God.”

Did David kill his wife, or did she kill herself, or neither? That is what police detectives Sam Sheppard and Ward Hastroll attempt to determine. Does the name Sam Sheppard sound familiar? Yes, it's the infamous Doctor Sam Sheppard who in 1954 was convicted of killing his pregnant wife Marilyn and spent nearly ten years in prison before the conviction was overturned and he was acquitted after a new trial. Although the real Sheppard died in 1970, this fictional one lives on as a detective, and the book flashes back to portray Sam and Marilyn's troubled marriage, his infidelities, and the events leading up to her death.

The third couple, Detective Ward Hastroll and his wife Hannah, have troubles of their own. Hannah comes home from work one day and takes to her bed with no explanation, and remains there for the next five months, as her husband becomes increasingly frustrated in his attempts to understand what has happened, even fantasizing her murder.

The book jumps around among these three couples, and also slips into scenes from David's book, and it's ofter not clear (at least to me) whether I'm reading about Ross's David and Alice or David's David and Alice. For example there's an odd dwarf hit man named Mobius (as in the endless Mobius strip?) who may be a real person or more likely is just a computer game sort of avatar in David's book.

Confusing? Yes, it is but it's also funny and intriguing and oddly entertaining. It doesn't all work, and I'm not sure I got it all, but I enjoyed the trip.
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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Silent Resistance

The novel “Everyman Dies Alone” was written in 1947 in twenty four days by the prolific but doomed German writer, Hans Fallada. Hans Fallada is the pen name for Rudolf Ditzer who died shortly after the novel was published.

“Everyman Dies Alone” is based on a true story that took place in Berlin in 1941. In 1945 Fallada/Ditzer was given the Gestapo file on a working-class Berlin couple, Otto and Elise Hampel, who began a surreptitious postcard campaign against the Fuhrer when a relative died in the war.

Hans Fallada took the real life events and wrote a compelling story about a non-descript working class couple, Otto and Anna Quangel, who decide to wage a silent war against Hitler when their son is killed at the front. Fallada sums up their unrelenting determination when Anna concludes “No one could risk more than his life. Each according to his strength and abilities, but the main thing was, you fought back.” This is the strength and beauty of this book. It gives the reader a lost insight into the small but meaningful resistance that some Germans took part in against unbeatable odds.

Fallada’s story involves a huge cast of characters that is not easy to follow. Fallada houses many of them in the apartment building where the Quangels live, some of the characters are downright ridiculous and others are just strange. Through the huge cast of characters Fallada seems to be illustrating the incredible level of fear and distrust that permeated the citizens of Berlin at that time. No one could be trusted. Yet, Otto and Anna persevered, writing postcards and silently distributing them week after week.

Reading this novel is difficult as we witness the unrelenting, ferocious cruelties of the Gestapo and the paralyzing fear that took over many citizens of Berlin. However, Fallada redeems himself in the ending chapters of the book. The ending is tragic, but heroic. And most important, it shows that in even the worst of circumstances human decency, determination and courage can prevail.

It has taken sixty years for this novel to be translated into English and appear in the US. It is a story that needs to be told even if it is not an easy or pleasant read.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Woman's Destiny

Jane Smiley’s latest novel “Private Life” is story about one woman’s life. The story begins in 1883 and closes in 1942 as this country enters World War II. It begins slowly as Margaret Mayfield, the narrator, describes her life in St. Louis. It is the end of the 19th century and life is uncomplicated but sad because of the untimely and surprising deaths that seem to be part of everyday life.
Margaret and her sisters are being trained to be “married” women. A great excitement for Margaret is getting to ride a bicycle when she is in her twenties.

But Margaret the oldest of three sisters is the one still not married. Her mother takes the matter in hand and creates a match for Margaret with Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early, an famed astronomer who is eleven years older than Margaret. And so begins the story of Margaret’s “Private Life”.

The couple move to the Mare Island naval station near Vallejo, California. From the vantage of Mare Island Margaret will watch history unfold. Jane Smiley describes the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire with all its chaos and horror. She follows that with the raging Spanish influenza epidemic, World War I, the stock market crash, Pearl Harbor, the incarceration of the Japanese Americans and finally World War II and the overwhelming it effects in had on the people of California and the country.

Throughout this unfolding history Margaret is trying to understand and live with her husband, a strange man who is “sucking the very air from her life.” As she lives day by day, she cooks, she drives, she types, she listens and slowly she begins to think about her life and to understand a truth she never dared to think about.

Jane Smiley’s cast of characters is a lively and memorable one. The story is one that takes over and urges the reader to find out what she is trying telling us about marriage, women and history.

Unlike Charlotte, (See Blog of "Private Life" July 2010) I enjoyed watching Margaret finally figure it out. Granted, it is a slow and painful process, but not one she was trained to do and it did take, finally, some gumption on her part. And the closing line sums up Margaret, "There are so many things that I should have dared before this."

Friday, October 29, 2010

Unexpected Slices

I always have trouble writing a blog about a book of short stories. Do I describe the ones I liked best? I don't want to give away too much. Part of what I liked best about the ten stories in Robin Black's “If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This” was that they seemed both familiar and unexpected at the same time.

For example, there's a story (“Harriet Elliot”) told by a fifth grade girl about a new girl in her class. But it's also about the narrator's own struggles to deal with her disintegrating family. We've all read these stories of childhood unhappiness, but this one approaches it from a different angle. And the all too familiar dynamic of a parent dealing with a teenager leaving the nest is viewed through the lens of a father's reluctant acceptance of a guide dog for his blind daughter (“The Guide”).

Black gives us views of familiar subjects – fidelity, loss, guilt, acceptance – approached in fresh and unexpected ways. Some stories work better than others (I thought the title story “If I Loved You” seemed labored), but I was moved and surprised by all ten.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Checking Back In

Guilty: I haven’t been blogging.

But I have been reading. I just didn’t seem to have the energy to get my thoughts together. But here are some of the books that I have read during this period and can recommend:

Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell. This is a memoir about the friendship between two older women that ended all too abruptly with the death of one from cancer. That is not a spoiler. These two women have more than the usual bonds: Same profession, new puppies, recovered from addiction, complicated relationships with their fathers, and a love of an athletic pursuit. Most of us are not so lucky. But women readers especially will appreciate (and envy) their discovery of each other – without any of the sexual intimacy that seems to be presumed among two single women friends.

Searching for Tamsen Donner by Gabrielle Burton. Another memoir. For a book that I really liked, it took me over a month to read and I’m not sure why. Burton is married and has five daughters (just like Tamsen Donner). One summer Burton takes her family on a road trip to recreate the journey of the Donner party. This memoir is part journal of that trip, part history of the Donner party and part record of Burton’s struggles to balance her ambition as a writer and her sense of responsibility as a mother. The history of the Donner party is fascinating. I had always thought that the stories of cannibalism were just conjecture – not so. Tamsen Donner managed to write a few letters during the journey which have been preserved; but her journal was never found. Burton tries to reimagine the thoughts and feelings of Tamsen Donner.

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. Fiction. If someone had told me that I could ever take an interest in professional race car driving, I would never have believed it. But for most readers, I think, that part of this book is just tangential. It’s more about the dog. The entire book is told from the dog’s point of view – which raises some interesting questions, such as: What does a dog see when the dog is in front of a television? There is a lot about race car driving and some good philosophy. “The car goes where the eyes go” works for both.

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Friday, October 22, 2010

An Irish Houseguest

In Deirdre Madden's Molly Fox's Birthday all the action of the novel takes place in a single day, the twenty-first of June, the birthday of an Irish actress named Molly Fox. I had to look it up to be sure, but I was right – this same construct is used in “Mrs. Dalloway”. Remember Clarissa preparing for and hosting her party in a single day? Anyway, back to Molly. The unnamed narrator is a successful playwright who has known Molly for twenty years – her first play launched her career and Molly's as well – and she is staying in Molly's home in Dublin while the actress is in New York.

The house is full of objects that remind her of Molly, and she reminisces about their long friendship, which expanded to include the narrator's college friend Andrew, now a well-known art historian. As the day progresses scraps of information are revealed about the disparate childhoods of the three friends, and we see the various ways that each of them has created an identity in response to early circumstances. All three have brothers who have in very different ways shaped their adult lives.  As one memory triggers another, the playwright narrator examines friendship – how well do we know our friends? But the examination
is also about identity – how do we present ourselves to the world, and how close is that to our true selves?  Can a playwright or an actress know a fictional character better than she knows her friend?

This is not a book for those who enjoy a plot-driven novel – not a lot happens, and much of the story is presented somewhat obliquely in little snatches of memory. But I was left with a lovely picture of Molly's charming Dublin home, and an interesting meditation on the meaning and the mystery of friendship.

And yes, once again I've revealed my affection for Irish writers. But this time she's from Northern Ireland so that must mean I'm expanding my horizons.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


After You've Gone - it's a title that comes to mean more and more as Jeffrey Lent's novel progresses.  In the early chapters it describes the life of college teacher Henry Dorn, whose happy marriage of over thirty years is abruptly ended when his beloved wife Olivia is killed in a car driven by their son Robert, who is perhaps under the influence of morphine and perhaps self-destructive.  

But it also describes Henry's early life in Nova Scotia, where, with the help of an understanding uncle, he flees the rigid and cold life his family has carved out for him in a fishing village in order to find a more satisfying life teaching college girls and raising a family in the Finger Lakes region of New York.  After he's gone he finds it difficult to visit the cold and resentful family he has left behind.

The later chapters describe Henry's departure from Elmira, New York to Amsterdam, where he hopes to reconnect with his Dutch roots and leave behind the sorrow that haunts him after his wife's death.  A shipboard romance with Lydia, a younger high-spirited and independent American woman, leads to a more serious relationship as the two settle into an idyllic summer romance in Amsterdam.  When she leaves him for Paris in order to contemplate their future, he is once more left behind to struggle with what it means to be alone and how to move forward into a new life, including a mid-life attempt to learn to play the cello.

Lent moves easily between these time periods as he pushes the story backwards and forward without jarring breaks.  His beautifully paints the portrait of a content and happy marriage that is anything but boring, and is masterful at describing the tender and painful bonds between parents and children.  He writes beautifully about a romance between two adults who struggle valiantly to overcome the baggage of their past lives.  And for me he kind of spoiled it with an unnecessarily melodramatic ending.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Forgetful Majority

I missed this essay when it first appeared in the September 19, 2010 issue of 'The New York Times Book Review'; but there were several Letters to the Editor about it in the October 3rd issue and that prompted me to look it up online. With the exception of fellow-blogger Charlotte who, I believe, remembers every book she has ever read, I urge everyone else to read "The Plot Escapes Me" by James Collins.

It speaks to me - and about me - more than anything I can remember reading. But that is the irony and the point of the essay. I remember very little of what I have read over the years or even last month. Does that make it a waste of time? Collins has some very interesting answers.

Stephen Dubner, co-author of Freakonomics, has a commentary on the article on his blog. He frames the question a little differently as you might expect: what is the opportunity cost of reading?

Conventional wisdom seems to suggest that book group discussions and writing down your thoughts about what you read (for example, in a blog!) should enhance retention. I can't really say that they do...but I'm not ready to give up on either.

You can read the Letters to the Editor about the essay here.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Love Triangle

The love triangle – we've all seen examples of it. Shakespeare used it in “Twelfth Night”, there's Tom, Daisy and Gatsby in “The Great Gatsby”, and the memorable Rick-Ilsa-Victor triangle in “Casablanca”. David Pinner, the central character in Nick Laird's Glover's Mistake, finds himself in this predicament. He is a thirty-three year old London college teacher who reconnects with Ruth Marks, a forty-five year old successful artist who had taught him years earlier in art school. Early on David believes that Ruth is attracted to him, but it soon becomes apparent that she is interested in his much younger, handsomer flatmate James Glover, a likable if somewhat dim bartender.

The novel is written in the third person, but it is told from David's point of view, and he initially seems to be decent if a little sad. But gradually it becomes clear that Glover's Mistake is innocently believing that David has his best interests at heart. David has the unreliable narrator's talent for self-justification as he persistently undermines the romance while pretending to be a devoted friend to both Ruth and James. It would be depressing if it weren't so funny and so cleverly written. Laird skewers the pretensions of the art world, explores the nastiness of anonymous blogs, rambles through London neighborhoods and ask questions about the meaning of love.

This is not a novel for readers who want their characters to be likable, or even admirable. Ruth is self-absorbed and insensitive, David a manipulating misanthrope, and although James is endearing he is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. But it's a clever and fast moving cautionary tale about the dangers of love triangles.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Worth A Second Look

More than one person had warned me that David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas was a difficult read. But I had been given a copy by a reader I admire so I decided to tackle it. It was a roller coaster ride - parts were a little bumpy, parts were exhilarating - and I'm glad I hung on to the end.

The book's first section is a journal begun in 1849 by Adam Ewing, an American notary, as he travels by sea from New Zealand to Hawaii. But in the middle of the story (actually in mid-sentence) the story suddenly shifts to 1931 and “Letters from Zedelghem”, letters from aspiring composer Robert Frobisher, who has convinced a reclusive musical genius to take him on as an amanuensis in his remote Belgian chateau. When Frobisher isn't bedding the composer's wife, lusting after his daughter or stealing books from his library, he is working on his own composition – Cloud Atlas Sextet. This section seems to have no connection to the one that preceded it, until Frobisher discovers the torn first half of a book on the shelf of his room, and it's “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing”. 

I'm sure my love of puzzles and problem solving helped keep me turning pages after that. The next four sections are once again about characters and time periods with no connection to the preceding ones, except there are little kernels – a birthmark, a manuscript, a movie title – which reference the previous section in an oblique way. The first five sections are written in different styles and each ends abruptly. The sixth - “Sloosha's Crossin' An' Ev'rythin' After” is as hard to read as the title suggests. It's a post-apocalyptic tale told in a sort of pidgin English by Zachry, a goatherd in Hawaii who describes life after the fall of civilization. Hawaii? Didn't the book start with a journey to Hawaii?

The book then pivots and works it way backwards. Each of the five stories begun in the first half is completed in the second, until, in the last section, we are back on the ship with Adam Ewing. Along the way Mitchell plants additional clever clues and references that make the book feel much more like an integrated whole than just a series of unrelated stories.

The composer Robert Frobisher described his Cloud Atlas Sextet as "overlapping soloists: piano, clarinet, cello, flute, oboe and violin, each in its own language of key, scale and colour. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order." That's a perfect description of this interesting book.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Three Audio Books

During summer car travels, we listened to several audio books, with mixed results. The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi is the true tale of the authors shared obsession with an unsolved series of crimes. A serial killer in the 1970's ritually murdered fourteen young lovers around Florence, was never caught, and is known as the Monster of Florence. Preston moved with his family to Florence (he is a mystery writer), met Spezi and together they searched to uncover and confront the man they believe is that monster. Along with murder, mutilation, suicide and vengance, they themselves become targets of a bizarre police investigation. The tale itself if fascinating, providing an additional lesson in political corruption and the concealed and extensive corruption within the Italian legal system. The tale is long, quite interesting, well narrated (Dennis Boutsikaris) but might well have benefited from some editing, since the details sometimes bog down the progress of the story.

Richard Russo, whose writing I thoroughly enjoy, wrote That Old Cape Magic, about the long, painful, sometimes funny struggles of Jack Griffin, a man in mid-life whose marriage is crumbling despite all the trappings of success, wife, daughter, etc. He has truly hideous parents and Russo creates very real, sad but often funny, people. However, over time I tired of this clueless man who excludes his family, thinking they have no impact upon his behavior and life if they are not physically present in his world. His realizations come slowly over time and I somehow lost patience with him as damages pile up along the way. Competently narrated (Arthur Morey), I wanted more to "happen" in this rather slow, character driven work.

The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St. Germain, by Andrew Greeley, is a "locked room" mystery (unraveling a mystery without chases, locations, etc.). Bishop Blackie, an intelligent, balanced Catholic Bishop makes entertaining and wry observations about love, life, religious pretentions and rigidity, as he tries to track down and understand the motivations of a priest who has gone missing. The author includes multiple pieces of history and detailed locations in Paris that make the traveler smile in memory, and the Bishop is a very astute man. However well narrated by George Guidall, the writing suffers from being "too" clever, overusing words like "patently"and "arguably" which over time, grew annoying. I found the resolution of the story to exceed my suspension of disbelief, leaving me somewhat disappointed in the end.
That said, the pleasures of audio books cannot be denied.

Friday, September 10, 2010

A Conflict of Interests

I've always had a soft spot for cop stories – I've blogged my appreciation for Richard Price's wonderful “Lush Life”(Neighborhood Crime), I've sung the praises of “The Wire”, and I still enjoy watching old “Law and Order” episodes. So Doug Dorst's Alive In Necropolis, a novel about cops whose beat includes the seventeen cemeteries of Colma, California, had obvious appeal for me. On the other hand I've never been fond of ghost stories – I'm just too skeptical. 

So how do I feel about this story of Michael Mercer, a rookie cop assigned to the night shift, patrolling the living and the dead in Colma? Well, I liked the 'living' part. Predictably, I loved the 'cop-talk'. Dorst does a great job of capturing that insult-laden banter. And in Mercer he creates a believable young man approaching thirty, uncertain of what he wants in life, bouncing between the circles of his more successful and established college friends and the grittier world of his cop buddies. He even has a sort of romantic interest in each of these worlds, but in his uncertainty he doesn't handle either relationship very well. One foggy night he saves the life of the teenage son of a powerful San Francisco movie kingpin, trussed and abandoned in the cemetery by friends he refuses to incriminate. The consequences for this confused and angry boy, and Mercer's attempts to help him, are for me the most interesting plot line.

But then there's the 'dead' part. Woven through the story of Mike Mercer is the story of Colma's ghostly residents. Among them are San Francisco heiress Lily Coit, ballplayer Lefty O'Doul, a daredevil aviator named Lincoln Beachey and bank robber Doc Barker, and for reasons I failed to grasp they are at each others throats. I know, I know...they're already dead so how can they hurt each other? See...this is why I hate ghost stories.

Eventually Mercer, suffering from sleep deprivation and anxiety, becomes involved in the ghosts' disputes, and I'll just say that I liked the story much better when he was dealing with the living.  Dorst has an enjoyable style, and I admire his risky choice of subject matter, but I hope that next time he'll skip the ghosts and stick to the cops.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Sitting Shiva

Jonathan Tropper’s 2009 novel “This Is Where I Leave You” is described as “A magnificently funny family saga…”, and “often side splitting”. It is the story of the Foxman family. Judd Foxman, our narrator, is one of four children, the third born and the second son, in a basically dysfunctional Jewish family. The Foxman children, now adults, have been summoned to their childhood home to sit Shiva for their father, Mort Foxman. Shiva is the weeklong ritual of sitting in your home and welcoming the friends and family who want to pay respects to the person who has died. The kids find the idea somewhat strange because as far as they knew their father was an atheist. What is making it even harder is that the rabbi, who is directing the Shiva, is a childhood friend of the Foxmans who had a few strange behaviors as a boy and who they nicknamed Boner.

The Foxman clan is an interesting group. Judd, the morose narrator, has recently walked in on his wife and his obnoxious boss having sex in his bed. Paul, Judd’s older brother by sixteen months, and his wife are trying desperately to have a baby. One afternoon the family gets to listen to them having sex over the baby monitor which their sister, Wendy, had accidentally left turned on in the baby’s room. Wendy has three children and a husband who spends the entire week on his cell phone
orchestrating million dollar deals. The youngest Foxman brother, Phillip, is a lovable fellow, who is a mystery to his family, which is fine with them because he just lies whenever anyone questions him. He appears with his “life coach” who is also his girlfriend and fifteen years older than he is. But the best character is Mrs. Foxman, the outspoken celebrity author of, “Cradle and All: A Mother’s Guide To Enlightened Parenting”. She has silicone breasts, which she loves to display, and wears miniskirts and stiletto heels. Her children cannot understand why she just can’t dress appropriately for a 63 year old woman who has just lost her husband.

A week of sitting Shiva is more than this family can take as old wounds and grudges
resurface and irreverent wisecracks and put me downs are relentlessly thrown back and forth. But in spite of themselves and their wacky relationships with each other, they learn more about their father (and their mother) in this week than all the years growing up in that house on Knob’s End.

Jonathan Tropper’s characters are funny and endearing. His one liners can be hilarious and the story and the intricate family history make for a very good novel that seems to be heading toward a movie. I definitely agree that this is a book that will make you smile if not laugh out loud!

Friday, September 3, 2010

A Difficult Subject

It's not easy to read a book about torture. It's uncomfortable being confronted with cruelty and brutality, and in the wrong hands the story can make a reader feel exploited or dirty.

But in In The Company Of Angels Thomas Kennedy leaves the reader with feelings of respect and hope. His main character is Bernardo "Nardo" Greene, a Chilean teacher who was imprisoned and brutally tortured during the Pinochet regime for teaching political poetry, while his wife and children were”disappeared”. He now lives in Copenhagen where he is being treated by a psychiatrist at a torture rehabilitation center. Occasionally the novel, which is written in the third person, switches to first person as the psychiatrist, Dr. Kristensen, who has already helped Nardo regain the use of an arm paralyzed by psychic rather than physical injury, wonders how much more he can do to help this damaged man, but also questions whether he would be strong enough to endure torture, or whether he would be capable of inflicting it.  It is a question I ask myself as well.

One day Nardo sees a beautiful Danish women, and wonders if he will ever be capable of loving a woman again, either physically or emotionally. She is Michela Ibsen, and she too has been damaged. She has suffered through a marriage in which she was abused, and lost her teenage daughter to suicide. Her current boyfriend, ten years her junior, is immature and possessive. And to top it all off, she has two aging parents residing on separate floors of a nursing home, one suffering from dementia and the other from cancer, neither of them particularly grateful for the visits from their devoted daughter. Sounds pretty grim, doesn't it?

But eventually Nardo and Michela meet, and Kennedy does a masterful job of portraying the painstaking progress that each of them make toward healing and toward understanding. Both are survivors struggling to reclaim their lives, and Kennedy presents them with empathy but without sentimentality.

Note: Thomas Kennedy is a New Yorker who has lived in Copenhagen for many years. He has published more than 20 books, enjoys an international reputation and has received numerous literary awards and  honors.  But this is his first novel to be published in the United States.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A World of Difference

The biographical blurb about the author Jean Kwok on the jacket cover of her first novel Girl in Translation can just as easily serve as an abbreviated summary of the story: “Jean Kwok (read Kimberly Chang) was born in Hong Kong and as a child immigrated to Brooklyn, where she worked with her family in a sweatshop.” Kimberley and her mother arrive here when Kimberley is eleven expecting to be taken in by relatives already living in Brooklyn. But there is an old rivalry between Kimberley’s mother and her mother’s sister Aunt Paula. It is Paula’s opportunity to exact a measure of revenge by providing only a roach-infested slum apartment and a job in a sweat factory to her newly arrived sister.

For the next few years Kimberley is our eyes into the hidden world of these Chinese immigrants living in unimaginable poverty, working under deplorable conditions. It is all the more surprising because Aunt Paula and her husband own the sweat factory and are now living comfortably. I had never really thought about it but I guess it makes sense that the owner of the sweat factory would be Chinese in order to communicate with the workers in their own language. But the inhumanity of the conditions is startling.

Kimberley also has the world of school to negotiate - in a foreign language. Thank goodness for the language of mathematics at which she already excels. School by day; factory work helping her mother and then homework by night; inadequate food, clothing and shelter from the elements. What makes some children so resilient? When Kimberley wins a scholarship to a prestigious private high school, her problems are only compounded because now she has to lead a double life always finding excuses not to join in the activities after school lest she be expected to reciprocate. And of course a coming-of-age story would not be complete without a love interest – or two.

The final chapters of the book fast forward and cover a lot of years quickly tying up lose ends as many authors do. This is a work of fiction, but there is so much of Kwok’s own life story here that it could almost be a memoir. It will be interesting to see whether Kwok, in future works, stays close to home or wanders farther afield.

Lest we think that the days of sweatshops are over, read this.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Reporting from Rome

There's something almost voyeuristic about reading a novel that is set in a workplace. It's like getting a behind the scenes look at how people function and interact in their everyday lives. It's why I loved Johnathan Ferris' “Then We Came to the End” (see my blog). In some ways all workplaces are alike – big dysfunctional families. But when the workplace is an international newspaper headquartered in Rome, as it is in Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists, it's especially fascinating.

Each chapter begins with a headline, a job description and a character name ; a particularly memorable one read: “Global Warming is Good for Ice Creams – Corrections Editor – Herman Cohen”. It may appear initially that the book is simply a collection of short stories about a people who share the same workspace. Some stories are humorous, others sad or bittersweet. But as they proceed the threads that weave them together become clear. We view characters from different angles in different stories, and emerge with a more nuanced understanding of them. They all share a grudging affection for the paper, and engage in gallows humor as circulation flags and jobs are cut.

Interspersed with the character chapters is a running history of the paper itself, from its founding in 1953 to its final days in 2007. Rachman worked for the International Herald Tribune in Paris, and was an AP correspondent in Rome, and his writing captures the tones of humor, irony and poignancy that seem to permeate newspaper life.  It's an impressive, sure-handed first novel.

NB - I just read that Brad Pitt ha purchased the movie rights.  Be sure to follow Dorothea's advice and read the book first.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

My Vote for the Man Booker Prize

The description of Cloud Atlas from fellow book group member Randy was so off-putting that I really hesitated; but the reviews of David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet were so favorable – and uniformly emphasized that it was a “traditional narrative” (my words) – that I decided to give Thousand Autumns a try. And I am so glad that I did. It is a fascinating book.

The location is exotic: a tiny man-made island off the coast of Nagasaki called Dejima. I wasn’t even sure that it was a real place but Wikipedia now informs me that it is. The events of the novel take place between 1799 and 1817 when Dejima, occupied by the Dutch, was the sole point of trade between Japan and the outside world. How little we know even now of the hidden Oriental world of that period. Jacob de Zoet is a Dutch clerk who has come to Dejima to make his fortune so that he can return to Holland to wed his beloved Anna. He is our eyes and ears in this place.

There are other memorable characters as well. Orito Aibagawa is a samurai midwife whose forced residence for a time in a Shinto convent shows us a life and belief system that strain credulity. Ogawa Uzaemonis is a translator who introduces us to the hierarchies of rank and jealousies among translators and the difficulties of navigating between these two languages. The island physician, Dr. Marinus, has brought his harpsichord to the island and wishes nothing more than to publish his taxonomy of Japanese flora; but meanwhile he serves up the rudimentary treatments available for gall stones, appendicitis and other maladies in the best way that Western medicine in this remote outpost has to offer.

The language is breath-taking. I wish I had the space to reproduce some of Mitchell’s better descriptions. One of the very best takes a page and a half (pgs 451-452) to describe "gulls wheeling through spokes of sunlight." It is eloquent testimony that “This world…contains just one masterpiece, and that is itself.” But this book is also a masterpiece.

To read an interview with David Mitchell, click here; and for profiles of Mitchell, click here and here.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Native American Comic Tragedy

Choosing a new book to read can be a challenge. I was rushing to catch a train when I stopped into a book store to get a book to read on the train. For some strange reason I didn’t see a familiar title or author. So I picked up a book with a gold seal that stated “Winner Pen Faulkner Award”.I had no idea who the author was or what the book was about. But I was in a hurry.

The book I inadvertently chose was “War Dances”, a collection of short stories and poems by the Native American writer, Sherman Alexie. The stories are written in a captivating, in your face style that makes them seem autobiographical. And although they may have their origins in Alexie’s own life, they are fiction. In the first story “Breaking and Entering” the narrator is a film editor working at home. Sherman Alexie has written two screen plays. The story progresses in a chatty, self deprecating style. But the reader slowly realizes that something is wrong, even before the narrator lets us know. What happened wasn’t “his” fault, but maybe he could have avoided it, all the signs were there. It is a very powerful story.

Before each story, Sherman Alexie, has written a poem. They are short, straight forward, poignant poems about contemporary issues and they relate in some way to the story that follows each poem. In “War Dances” the narrator is in the hospital with his aging, alcoholic, diabetic father. All he wants to do is find a blanket for his father. Before the story is a poem Alexie has written about playing legos with his sons.

The stories revolve around family, love, the problems of love, how American Indians are stereotyped in our society, and how race issues enter into everyday life whether we choose it to or not.

Sherman Alexie is a strong new voice who has a lot to say about life. The best part is that he can tell a great story that is sad and true, but he has that special talent that can make you laugh through the sadness, because he has been there and he knows that humor is the only way out.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Mountain Souls

When I opened Kevin Canty's Everything to the first page, I was reminded of term papers I had written long ago. Wide margins and double spacing between paragraphs – all in the hope of stretching an eight page paper into ten pages. But I'm doing Canty a disservice by making him sound like a slacker, because the style of printing actually complements his style of writing – lean, spare prose full of powerful silences.

Canty's story revolves around RL, a middle-aged Montana fishing guide, and his complex relationships with the people closest to him. He and June, the widowed wife of his best friend, are bound by their mutual loss, but even after eleven years they seem unable to move forward with their lives. They are painfully self-aware of their shortcomings, and futilely try to fix the problems of the people they love.

But don't be put off – it's not as depressing as it sounds. Canty's minimalist style allows for flashes of humor and moments of redemption. His love of the stark pure beauty of Montana permeates the book, and as his story spans the seasons of a year he paints heartfelt pictures of the mountain landscape and tough and tender people who inhabit it.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Read the Book First

I rarely go to see movies in the theater or even rent them for viewing at home. But I had heard such good things about the movie “Winter’s Bone” (which won some awards at the Sundance Film Festival and was shown at Cannes this year) that I decided to access it through its original medium: the book by Daniel Woodrell.

Let me jump to the conclusion: Every book group should read this book. It is short (193 undersized pages) and I guarantee that your group will have a long and very spirited discussion. I will go even further and say: don't read this book alone because you surely will want to discuss it when you finish.

The setting: Winter in the Ozarks

The set-up: Sixteen-year-old Ree Dolly has dropped out of high-school to care for her two younger brothers and her mother whose mind long ago succumbed to the effects of life or drugs or both. If that isn’t hard enough, her father Jessup has disappeared just before an upcoming court date for his latest drug offence. If he doesn’t show up, Ree and family will lose their house that Jessup had posted as security for his bail bond.

The story: Ree’s search for her father

Especially for those of us outside of Missouri, this is a view into the crystal meth culture and rural clan life that are largely hidden. The language is rich, the descriptions of the natural surroundings vivid, the characters memorable, the relationships confounding. Life there is raw and violent but forms of love and loyalty will not be denied. There is so much to savor. The author’s artistry and economy of language are at times breathtaking. There are scenes and sentiments here that will stay with me for a long time. I think that I will just have to read it again.

Woodrell’s own life story is compelling. He was born in the Ozarks, dropped out of high school to join the Marines…and ten years later had an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

I hope you haven’t seen the movie. Read the book first.

Friday, August 6, 2010

A Powerful Story

Sometimes a story is so powerful that it haunts you long after you've finished reading it. That's the way I feel about the memoir Burning Horses: A Hungarian Life Turned Upside Down. The author Agatha Hoff assumes the voice of her mother Éva Leopold Badics to tell her moving story. Éva was born to an aristocratic family in Szekszárd, a small town in southern Hungary, in 1905. Her grandfather was Jewish but she was raised Catholic. She had an idyllic childhood filled with piano lessons, party dresses, and carefree vacations.  She met her husband, a graduate student named Jóska Badics, at a dance, and for their wedding in 1926 her parents deeded them a two hundred acre farm southwest of Budapest. The happy couple looked forward to a simple life in the countryside with their two little girls Livia and Agatha.

But World War II changes everything. Éva and Jóska's innocent belief that “it could never happen here” is replaced with the grim reality of life in Budapest under Nazi occupation. The noose begins to tighten around Éva because of her Jewish ancestry, threatening to tear her family apart. No writer of fiction could ever have imagined the ordeals they had to suffer to stay alive, nor could he have created a character as indomitable as Éva. Her experience is simultaneously awe-inspiring and heartbreaking. This is not just a Holocaust story, but also a story of love and perseverance in the face of man's inhumanity, told in clear but poetic prose by a loving daughter.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Other Side of the Story

If you have read the 1989 Oscar Hijuelos novel “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love” you will remember the Castillo brothers – band leader Cesar and his ill-fated brother Nestor. You may even remember the love song Nestor wrote in memory of his long lost love in Cuba - “Beautiful Maria of My Soul”. That's the title of Hijuelos's newest novel, in which he tells the story of the woman who inspired the love song.

Maria Garcia y Cifuentes is a beautiful but illiterate country girl (a guajira) who comes to Havana and quickly learns to use her looks to her advantage as a dancer in a second rate Havana nightclub. There she meets Ignacio, a gangster who showers her with gifts, clothes and a nice apartment. But she also meets the soulful trumpeter Nestor, with whom she has a passionate love affair described in great detail by Hijuelos. Let's just say that Nestor's instrument is prodigious even when he's not playing the trumpet. But what's a poor girl to do? Maria opts for security over passion and heartbroken Nestor heads for New York, where his adventures (including a memorable appearance on "I Love Lucy") are picked up in “Mambo Kings”.

The story is periodically interrupted by reminiscences by the sixty-something Maria, now living in Miami with her grown daughter (an immigrant's dream come true – she's a doctor), looking back over her personal story as well as the turbulent history of Cuba. Images of the poverty and luxury that existed side by side in the pre-Castro Havana are especially powerful, and the description of the Cuban community in Miami is vivid.

Hijuelos is a great storyteller, and although he was born in the US his affection for Cuba and her people is always apparent. Could there ever really be a woman as universally desirable and passionate as Maria? That seemed a little like a fairy tale (a very male fairy tale), but I enjoyed my return visit to these memorable characters.
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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Do you know TED?

This is really going to be a stretch for a blog whose subtitle is "all things reading." The best that I can do is: 1) we read to investigate ideas and 2) for many of us, at least some of our reading these days is "audible." So why not a website that records (video and audio) and makes available for download lectures of "ideas worth spreading"? Hence, TED: You can listen on your computer or download MP3 files for later portable listening.

The range of topics and speakers is vast. Many are short - less than 20 minutes. I have listened to:
Edith Widder on Glowing Life in an Underwater World
Simon Sinek on How Great Leaders Inspire Action
Dan Pink on the Science of Motivation

Trying to make a selection is almost paralyzing. One way to get started:
- Go to the Home Page
- Select "Talks" at the top
- Along the left side select "Most favorited (is that really a word?) all-time"

Or listen to Elif Shafak's talk on The Politics of Fiction.

Think of this as another arrow in our Alzheimer's Prevention quiver. Let me know what you think. I can't imagine that you will be disappointed. If you find a particularly noteworthy talk, please share.

PS: Many thanks to my friend Jill for introducing me to this wonderful resource.

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Double Lives and Double-Crossed

The double lives recounted in Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich are the stuff of legend: MIT students, graduates and drop-outs who formed a team in the mid-90s to defeat the gambling casinos on their own turf at the blackjack tables. For some team members weekends in Las Vegas were a break from 9 to 5 jobs; for others it was their only job. Like most teams, this team had leaders and followers, rivalries, egos, and power struggles which were only intensified by the large sums of money to be won or lost.

Mezrich does such a good job of explaining the nuances of card counting (and the boundaries that keep it legal) that you ALMOST think you could have done it, too - in the days before continuous shuffling in the casinos. The point is made repeatedly: blackjack is the only game offered by casinos that is beatable over an extended period of time. Absent a shuffle of the deck, the cards you see affect the cards that you are going to see. But the story makes another point: casinos and the corporations that own them don’t like to lose. As the team leader said to the new recruit: “The most important decision a card counter ever has to make is the decision to walk away.” That’s good advice not just for card counters.

I’m not sure whom to blame for what I consider the double-cross: the author or the publisher, probably both. It’s right there on the last page in About the Author: “Bringing Down the House is his seventh book and his first foray into nonfiction.” Even the Library of Congress cataloging is misleading: “Biography.” Except that it isn’t nonfiction and it isn’t biography as a very careful reading of the Copyright page discloses: “Some of the events and characters are also composites of several individual events or persons.” That makes it Fiction in my mind. No footnotes, no bibliography. And I am left to wonder: if the author was not constrained by facts and the truth, how much may have been invented to make a good story even better?

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Sunday, July 18, 2010

What is True?

Paul Auster has written fifteen novels, six non-fiction works, two screen plays and a collection of poems. I have read one of his novels “The Brooklyn Follies” and I didn’t really like it, although most of our book club did. When I saw his latest novel “Invisible” I was intrigued. The description on the book itself, sounded very interesting. The New York Times critic, Clancy Martin, states that “Invisible” is Paul Auster’s finest novel. I would like to agree because I really enjoyed this novel, but I haven’t read enough of Paul Auster to make that claim.

The story begins in 1967, in New York City. The protagonist, Adam Walker, is a second year student at Columbia University, majoring in poetry. Adam finds himself at a party in Manhattan, not sure why he is there. At the party Adam meets, Rodolf Born, a Swiss citizen teaching at Columbia and his beautiful French girlfriend, Margot. This chance encounter sets off a series of events that lead to an act of violence that changes Adam’s life.

The novel is presented in four parts, Spring, Summer, Fall and Cecile‘s diary. The first section is narrated by Adam. The second section jumps to 2007 as Jim Freeman, a college friend of Adam, tells us that he has received a letter and a manuscript from Adam. Adam fills him in on what has happened to him over the past forty years and asks him to read the manuscript he has written. The manuscript is entitled Summer, and it took place the summer after Adam’s encounter with Born. This section is a difficult read for the Jim and for the reader because it is about incest. It is the natural, beautiful prose of Auster that makes this section work for the reader. But it is in this section that the reader begins to question the reliability of Adam as a narrator.

In the next section, Fall of 1967, Adam finds himself in Paris on a mission. A mission that reunites Adam with Born and introduces him to Born’s fiancée, Helene Juin, and Helene’s daughter Cecile. Adam’s mission in Paris fails and he finds himself back in the United States. The final section of the book is entitled, Cecile Juin’s Diary, and takes place in 2007. This section tells the reader what ultimately happens to the characters but doesn’t end the story in a true sense.

The story has tree different narrators and as many perspectives on what really happened during the year of 1967. It is a story of love and how difficult it is to define love because it is invisible. Paul Auster’s writing is so good, so brisk, that you glide through the pages, but his sentences are filled with innuendo and he is a master of intrigue. “Invisible” is a wonderful novel and although it may be his best, I am tempted to try another.

Friday, July 16, 2010


I like to think that I will at least recognize the name of most American novelists who have written critically acclaimed fiction for over twenty years. But I'm embarrassed to say that until I heard Garrison Keillor talking about him on “Writer's Almanac” I had never heard of Richard Powers. His list of awards is indeed impressive – National Book Award winner and Pulitzer finalist in 2006, New York Times Notable Book five times, MacArthur Fellowship. Just another reminder of how much great fiction is out there waiting to be read.

So I chose his 2006 book The Echo Maker. The book title refers to the sandhill crane, whom Native Americans named “the echo maker” because of its distinctive call. The opening sequence is an absolutely beautiful description of the cranes settling onto the frigid Platte river in Nebraska as part of their northward migration. Then the calm of this scene is shattered by the squeal of brakes and the sound of a crash. Even if you don't read the whole book I recommend that you read those first two pages – knocked my socks off.

The crash victim is twenty-seven year old Mark Schluter, and the head injury he suffers produces an unusual condition. He believes that his older sister Karin, who has returned to her Nebraska hometown to care for her brother, is an impostor – a skilled actress who looks like Karin and seems to know him and his family history well but is a fake. In desperation Karin contacts Doctor Gerald Weber, an Oliver Sacks-like neurologist who has written several successful books about unusual brain disorders. Weber agrees to come to Nebraska, and his own professional and personal life becomes entwined with the Schluters, Mark's friends and caregivers, and eventually even the cranes.

In the process Powers imparts an amazing amount of information about brain injury and brain research (maybe more than I needed), but he also creates compelling characters who struggle with their identity and sense of self. He weaves the arc of the cranes' migratory journey into the stories of this characters' personal journeys, and the mystery of an anonymous note left by a witness to the accident is threaded through the book and revealed in the end.

I'm glad I found Richard Powers. How many other wonderful writers am I missing?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Gem of a Book

I have been trying to think of a way to give some direction to my reading other than just a haphazard selection from books on the table at the library or mentioned in the newspaper or on a blog. It occurred to me after reading Le Clezio’s Wandering Star (see Charlotte’s April 23, 2010 blog) that I could use the Nobel Prize in Literature as an organizing structure. Working backward, it would take me a while but eventually I would get to Pearl S. Buck who was awarded the prize in 1938. In the meantime I have just finished Pearl of China by Anchee Min.

This is a novel but there is no attempt to disguise that fact that it presents itself as a biography of the real Pearl Buck told by an imagined Chinese friend Willow. Certain facts of Buck’s life as portrayed in the book are undoubtedly true. She grew up in China because her father was an American missionary there trying to convert the Chinese from Buddhism to Christianity. She married an American agriculturist who came to China trying to teach poor peasants who had farmed the land for centuries the ways of Western agriculture. She gave birth to a severely handicapped daughter. She was twice driven out of China, first by the Boxer Rebellion and finally by the Nationalists when she was in her 40’s. (Questions: Does the fact that this book is presented as a novel remove any legal issues for the author? What if the portrayal were unflattering and factually inaccurate? What if Buck were still alive?)

Before leaving China for good, Buck had already started to find her escape and strength through writing, first by contributing articles under assumed male names to Chinese newspapers (the Chinese were not likely to accept the opinions of a blond female Westerner) and then essays and stories to publications outside China about what life was really like in the Orient for the greater number of Chinese people. All of that takes place in the first half of the book. The second half is really Willow’s story as she remains in China during the Communist struggle and the Cultural Revolution.

Min’s descriptions of life in China are vivid and detailed especially when it comes to weddings and funerals. The internal political struggles, the repression of Mao’s regime, the intrigues of Madame Mao are just as fascinating as Buck’s early life. A perfect follow-up has to be Pearl Buck in China by Hilary Spurling, a non-fiction account of Buck’s life during the same period. And, of course, The Good Earth itself.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Story of a Marriage

I started reading Jane Smiley with great enthusiasm over twenty years go. I enjoyed her short story collection “The Age of Grief” and her novellas “Ordinary Love and Good Will”, and I really loved “A Thousand Acres”. But then came “Moo” and I began to feel that Jane's time in Ames, Iowa had made her a little more interested in farming and animals than I was, and I moved on to other authors.

But recently she published a new novel called Private Life that sounded intriguing. It follows the life of Margaret Mayfield from her childhood in post-Civil War Missouri, to her marriage to Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early and their married life in northern California at the Mare Island naval station and nearby Vallejo. Woven into the story are many historical events, from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to the Japanese internment camp at Tanforan Racetrack in 1942.

But when I find an historical novel enjoyable it's not because the history is good; it's because the story is good. (“Half of a Yellow Sun” is a successful recent example of this). And this is the story of a remarkably uninteresting woman and a remarkably unlikeable man, and it didn't work for me. Not that I have anything against unlikeable characters. Sam Pollitt in Christina Stead's powerful “The Man Who Loved Children” (see my blog) was, like Andrew Early, a narcissistic gasbag in love with his own cockeyed theories and delusional ideas, but Stead created family members who clashed with his monstrous ego and then spun off in all directions. But Margaret Early does little more than wring her hands. I'm sure I'm meant to admire her growing self-awareness and independence, but by then she's sixty-four and I've had to endure thirty years of this dysfunctional marriage.

Strangely enough, this story made me think of “Middlemarch”. Remember how Dorothea puts up with that drip Mr. Casaubon for far too long? But she does eventually come to her senses and leave. I wish Margaret had read George Eliot. 

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

3 for 3

Well, I did it: lost another weekend to Steig Larsson's The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest. There's not much that I can add to the millions of words/reviews/blogs already devoted to this phenomenon ("book" just doesn't seem to capture it).

For myself, I still had trouble with all of the multi-syllabic Scandinavian names. I still think that having a better sense of the geography of the country would have helped but lacking it was probably not a serious handicap. Some of the violence is over the top, especially the part with the nail gun - what an imagination! AND there are some very thoughtful passages about the role of a Secret Police in a democratic society: think CIA in the United States. In the end it is this social commentary that I think was Larsson's mission although it is not that for which he is being read or may be remembered. How much of Mikael Blomkvist is Larsson's alter-ego?

In a recent article by Charles McGrath in the The New York Times Magazine, there was mention that Larsson's long-time girlfriend may have possession of a 4th manuscript on a laptop computer. There was also an assertion from some quarters that Larsson never had enough talent as a writer to have authored the three books in the series. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, develops along either of these lines.

PS: The icing on this three-layer cake may be the article in the July 5, 2010 issue of The New Yorker by Nora Ephron: "The Girl Who Fixed the Umlaut." It is very clever and very funny. Read it as soon as you finish Hornet's Nest while you still remember the details.