Sunday, May 30, 2010

Hiding to Survive

Whenever I find a book by Anna Quindlen, whether in the library or at a bookstore, I start reading an excerpt and the next thing I know I am checking it out or buying it. Her writing draws me in because it is often presented like a mystery but it isn’t a mystery in the true sense. My latest find, “Black and Blue”, was published in 1998. It is a story of domestic abuse and violence, and the people in this country who are finding ways to escape it. Anna Quindlen was a columnist and this story reads like non fiction mainly because it is written in the first person.

Frances Flynn, the protagonist and heroine, met Bobby Benedetto in a bar in Brooklyn when she was nineteen years old. She was a student nurse and Bobby was a New York City policeman. The first episode of abuse happened before they were married. But they did marry, they had a son, Robert, the abuse continued and became more and more violent. The novel opens with Fran relating how she and Robert were running away from Bobby Benedetto, as far and as fast as they could.

Fran Benedetto found someone who would help her escape. A woman came to the hospital where Fran worked to talk about domestic abuse. Patty Bancroft gave Fran what she needed to get away from her husband------a new identity and a place to hide and start a new life.

Fran, now Beth Crenshaw, and Robert began their new life in a nondescript town in Florida. Beth was constantly comparing all that she left behind with her new life, one without fear. But Fran/Beth was ever watchful, trying to keep herself and her son from doing anything that would give her husband a chance to find them. And when there were slip ups Fran refused to give in and relocate again, a mistake she would soon regret. This story is a page turner. Anna Quindlen has an important, heartfelt message for the reader which she portrays with strong, descriptive language. The way it is written Fran Benedetto seems like a real person, someone you might know. Anna Quindlen said, “ I have a soft spot for every character I’ve created, but perhaps none has lived inside me so completely, and so happily, as the nurse from Brooklyn who had the guts to take her son and run from her policeman husband. I still miss being with her, all these years after I first lived inside her skin.”

“Black and Blue” is an engrossing story with a heroine you will not easily forget.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


I had to look it up to be sure: "An elegy is a mournful, melancholic or plaintive poem, especially a funeral song or a lament for the dead." Why did Benjamin Black use that in the title of his latest novel Elegy for April when the premise of the book is the search for a missing girl? As I think most readers do when reading a mystery, I was trying to anticipate the outcome as I was reading. Would the author intentionally give away the ending in the title? or was he trying to mislead? or something else?

To review: Benjamin Black is the pen name of John Banville (author of The Sea). As Black, this is his third novel about Quirke (no first name), a Dublin pathologist whose curiosity repeatedly places him in harm's way. You can review the two previous books in our blogs What's in a Name? and Nom de Plume. This time his daughter Phoebe comes to him with concern for her missing friend April who hasn't been seen by any of her friends or colleagues (she's a doctor) for a week. Although April is from a prominent local family, their pride and ambition long ago caused them to abandon their ties to April for her unconventional life style.

We should all be so fortunate to have a friend like Phoebe. She refuses to give up the search for her friend even in the face of threats to her own safety. As with any good mystery, there are other sub-plots including a love interest for Quirke and racial prejudice (April has a Nigerian friend/boyfriend). There are repeated references to an episode in Irish history, the Easter Rising, about which it might have been helpful to be better informed but I don't think my ignorance was a serious handicap. The convoluted family history of Quirke and his daughter from the previous books is recapped and is the occasion now of a humorous misunderstanding.

The final chapters bring everything to a head with a rapidity and plot twists that required careful reading and re-reading on my part to grasp all of the details. Even as Benjamin Black, Banville cannot escape his talent for description, particularly of Dublin, its climate, its culture and its inhabitants. I could just feel the fog... but then again we have a lot of that in San Francisco, too.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Memories of a War

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has written a novel to honor her grandfathers and her uncles who fought in the Nigeria-Biafran War. She listened to the memories and the stories they told and she did expansive research. The war which took place from 1967 to 1970 between the Muslims and the Christian Igbo is largely forgotten. What we remember are the photographs of Biafran children, with spindly arms and legs and swollen stomachs. These photos became a symbol to the world of starvation.

Adicie’s second novel “Half of a Yellow Sun” begins with a narrative by Ugwu, a thirteen year old village boy who is beginning his life as a houseboy for “Master”. Master is Odenigbo, a professor at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka. There are laugh out loud parts of this chapter…… “(Ugwu) wanted to do more, wanted to give Master every reason to keep him so one morning he ironed Master’s socks.” The author has chosen to begin on a light note, but as endearing as Ugwu is throughout the novel even he succumbs to the horrors that war brings.

Master’s mistress is the beautiful, privileged, educated Olanna, daughter of a nouveau riche Igbo businessman. Her twin sister Kainene is sarcastic, sharp, impenetrable-----the opposite of Olanna. Kainene’s lover is Richard, a white, British writer who is obsessed with Nigeria and Kainene.

Adichie tells the story of this war through the eyes of these four characters. Olanna goes to visit her relatives in the village and witnesses unspeakable horror. Ugwu, Odenigbo, and Olanna must evacuate Nsukka. They eventually find themselves in a refugee camp lining up to receive, or not receive, meager amounts of food. Kainene and Richard run from planes dropping bombs and watch as a piece of shrapnel takes off the head of Kainene’s houseboy, as he ran for cover.

Adichie does not spare the reader. As we read Adichie’s clear, straight forward prose we understand exactly what happened to these people as this war raged for three years. Her story stresses the meaning of country, family, and love. Her themes of loyalty and betrayal are entwined with the actions and reactions of each character as she emphasizes the power of love to overcome pain.

“Half of a Yellow Sun” is a story that will help the world remember what happened in that war, over forty years ago, and it is an amazing tribute to her family members who died and those who survived the Biafran War.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Times Have Changed

I have read and enjoyed several Laurie Colwin short stories over the years, so I was sure I would like her novel Happy All The Time. And I don't exactly dislike it – I just don't quite get it. Maybe it's a little dated? It was published in 1978.

The book, set in Manhattan in the 1970's,  is about two best friends – cousins Guido and Vincent – and two marriages. Guido falls in love with Holly, a wealthy, beautiful but decidedly chilly woman who seems to love Guido but has difficulty saying so. Vincent is captivated by the wonderfully named Misty Berkowitz, who, unlike the sunny, optimistic Vincent, is gloomy, crabby and suspicious of happiness. The men vigorously pursue the women, never sure their love is reciprocated, never certain of what is going on in the women's minds. Both couples marry and despite some minor setbacks, lead happy lives. 

Maybe in the midst of the Woman's Movement these seemed like healthy male/female relationships, but they feel very unrealistic in today's light. I have nothing but admiration for independent women, but 'independent' doesn't equate with sullen or withdrawn. And don't even talk to me about 'plucky'.

Colwin is a witty and accomplished writer, but maybe I should stick to her short stories. Has anyone else read a Laurie Colwin novel that they loved?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A Life of Crime

“It’s a civilized country that sells cappuccinos on the commuter ferries.” My sentiments exactly. The country in question is Italy and the book in question is the novel The Singer’s Gun by Emily St. John Mandel. You may start to see ads describing this book as “Riveting”, “Provocative”, “A Wild Read” and I would agree.

The place of the story is alternately Brooklyn and the island of Ischia (a real island off the coast of Naples. When I looked it up, it mentioned that the island is well regarded for its thermal baths though no mention is made of that in the story!) Three main characters: Anton, mid-level manager in a research division at an international water systems consulting firm; his cousin Aria; and his corporate assistant Elena. When the company is awarded a contract with New York City, all of the employees must have a background check…and that’s when Anton’s carefully constructed life starts to come apart.

What starts with a falsified college diploma ends in murder with all manner of illegal activity in between: selling stolen goods, creating and selling false passports and social security cards, human trafficking. As the subject of illegal immigration appears almost daily in our news, the sections of the book related to the false passports and social security cards bring another dimension to that debate.

Like the rest of us, criminals are not one-dimensional. They are not completely defined by their criminal activity. They are also parents trying to raise their children; artists with a love for restoring their stolen antiquities; philosophers reading Spinoza on a Sunday afternoon. But loyalty is paramount and betrayal is unthinkable. That makes breaking out of the cycle of criminal activity, no matter how innocently begun, almost impossible.

This is Anton’s story but not just Anton’s. As his mother tells him, “Well, most things you have to do in life are at least a little questionable…” Haven't we all been there?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Journey to America

Lisa See has a great-grandfather who was Chinese and came to California in 1871. And although she is Caucasian on her maternal side, she feels that she is “Chinese in my heart”. Her latest novel “Shanghai Girls” opens in 1937. Pearl and May Chin live in Shanghai and spend their days primping and dressing for their nights as “Beautiful Girls”. Their job is to pose for magazines and advertisements. They are oblivious to the poverty surrounding Shanghai. But their privileged life comes to an abrupt end as the girls learn that their father has sold them as brides to settle his gambling debts. The buyer is “Old Man Louie”. Mr. Louie is a Chinese man who has immigrated to America and wants Chinese brides for his two sons.

As the girls plot to escape their fate, the Japanese invade Shanghai. The girls and their mother flee Shanghai. What they encounter as they flee will change their lives forever. They eventually find themselves on Angel Island (the Ellis Island of the West) for months, waiting for clearance by the immigration authorities. When they finally join their husbands in Los Angeles, they are shocked by what they find. Their father in-law is involved with the building of China Town in Los Angeles, but his family lives in a small, crowded apartment. They work in the souvenier shops and the restaurants that will become China Town. When World War II begins they witness Chinese Americans struggling to prove their allegiance to the US. Lisa See describes the changes that overtake China and the relatives left behind as Mao’s communist regime takes over. “Shanghai Girls” is largely an historical fiction novel. See poignantly relates the difficult experience of being a Chinese immigrant to the United States just prior to and after World War II. Pearl and May Chin are strong characters who fight for independence and freedom in a world dominated by men.

“Shanghai Girls” is a story that incorporates the fall of Shanghai and the Chinese immigration to Los Angeles in the 1930s, with a very interesting, well written story about the survival of two strong willed, irrepressible sisters.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Don't Know Much About Poetry

No, I really don't. I didn't major in English, so I never worked my way through Norton's Anthology, and my poetry knowledge is a spindly, gap-filled trail from Chaucer to Ginsberg. So when Paul Chowder, the narrator of Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist, announces in the first paragraph that he intends to tell the reader “everything I know about poetry”, I decided to go along for the ride.

Paul is a second-rate poet who is struggling to write an introduction to a new anthology of poetry called “Only Rhyme”. Things are not going well - he can't seem to get started, his girlfriend has moved out, he begins to doubt his abilities. But as he muddles through the day he chats on about a myriad of subjects - the origins of poetry, the shortcomings of iambic pentameter, the Futurists who led the 20th century movement away from rhymed verse, even the clothespin manufacturing industry of 19th century New England. Not much happens to him, but his descriptions of such mundane tasks as dog-washing and blueberry-picking are humorous and endearing. He drops poets names left and right, and for every Sara Teasdale or Robert Frost that I recognized, there were twice as many – Howard Moss, James Fenton, Coventry Patmore, Vachel Lindsay – that I didn't. But I hope I'm not making this sound pedantic, because it isn't. Paul is funny, a little goofy, and full of enthusiasm for his theories on poetry.

If it did nothing else, this book whetted my interest in poetry, and sent me to the internet to find some of the poems Paul discussed. Here are two of his favorites that I enjoyed: Elizabeth Bishop's “The Fish” and James Fenton's “The Vapour Trail”.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Where did I leave my car keys?

Why do I keep reading these books about people with Alzheimer’s? Do I think that somehow reading about it can prevent it from happening? If only it were that simple. My lastest foray into the realm of the mind is the novel Still Alice by Lisa Genova. Genova has a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard and helped care for her own grandmother who had Alzheimer’s in her 80s so she knows whereof she writes on several levels.

This is the story of Alice Howland, a professor of cognitive psychology at Harvard, married to a scientist, with three grown children. It starts with small moments: she forgets a significant word during a lecture presentation, but remembers it later (of course); she goes out for a run and momentarily doesn’t recognizing the surroundings where she has been a thousand times (Harvard Square); she asks her daughter the same question about her roommates (“I just told you. Why don’t you listen to anything I say?”). But the scariest part is that Alice is only 50 years old.

When she can no longer pretend that these incidents are related to early menopause, she investigates as the scientist that she is and finally receives a diagnosis of EOAD (Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease). By definition, EOAD is only for people under 65 years of age. All of this happens early on in the book so no spoiler.

Then the book follows Alice and her family as they come to terms with her illness and as it progresses. But unlike many other books on the same subject the voice of this story is that of Alice, from the “inside” as it were. There’s a lot to learn here including some real science and especially some lessons in how to interact with and how not to act toward someone who has Alzheimer’s. The family members who rise to the occasion – or fall – are not always the ones you would predict.

The particular form of the disease that Alice has is related to a certain gene for which one can be tested and which if present is unfailingly predictive of the later onset of the disease. Each of the three children has a choice of whether to be tested and find out if he or she will eventually develop EOAD. I am still thinking about what I would do in that circumstance. Would I get the test? How would life change if I learned that I had the defective gene? Would I want a pact among siblings that we all make the same choice? What if we had differing results?

Of course I am too old ever to have EOAD but that’s only one variation. From the World Health Organization website: “In November 2000, the National Institute on Aging (USA) estimated that up to 50% of Americans aged 85 years or more may have Alzheimer’s disease.” As we look at our friends and family and are working hard ourselves at living healthy lifestyles to live longer, we are going to face this disease “up close and personal” as they say, if we haven’t already. Studying the science of this disease will give us facts; but studying the lives of people with the disease, even through fiction, may give us some wisdom. I recommend that you read this book.


Friday, May 7, 2010

Post Mortem

Henry Roth is best known for his 1934 autobiographical novel “Call It Sleep” (see Dorothea's blog). Overlooked at the time of its initial publication, it was re-issued in 1964 to both popular and critical acclaim, admired as one of the great immigrant novels of the century. Roth, who had abandoned writing in the 1940s, went on to write four more novels before his death in 1995.

The raw material that was to become his final book, An American Type, was a 1900 page manuscript found in a stack at The New Yorker in 2005. Willing Davidson, then an assistant in the fiction department, read the manuscript and took on the task of paring, rearranging and shaping the material into a coherent whole.

The book's main character Ira, clearly a version of Roth himself, is a young Jewish writer in 1938 who has published a successful first novel and is struggling to write a second. During a summer stay at the artist colony Yaddo, he falls in love with a beautiful young blond pianist Roth calls M (Roth's wife of over fifty years was named Muriel Parker), abandons his domineering mentor and lover Edith, and sets off on a search for identity and maturity that takes him on a cross country odyssey and eventually back to Manhattan to marry M.

The book at times has a stitched-together feel, as episodes are strung together but are not quite connected, undoubtedly the result of Davidson's efforts to shape the disjointed manuscript into a cohesive story. But some of these episodes are so beautifully written that I can overlook this shortcoming. The description of Ira's stay at Yaddo is funny and touching, and the chapters on his bleak existence in LA seem to capture the gritty depression era authentically. Ira can at times be unlikeable, and he does too much navel-gazing for my tastes, but Roth's prose is powerful and often lyrical, and despite the difficulties that the Depression imposed on them, his characters remain optimistic and hopeful.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

aka The Spin Doctor

Okay. I’ll have to display my ignorance. Prior to last week, if you had asked me “What do you know about Malta?” I might have replied “Is that where there was an important meeting during World War II? Oh, no. That was Yalta.” That’s bad, isn’t it? I couldn’t even have placed Malta correctly on our small planet. But now, having read The Information Officer by Mark Mills, I am much better informed. This is a murder mystery and a history lesson and it succeeds superbly at both.

It is 1942 and Malta is under siege: both externally by the German and Italian Axis air forces; and internally by someone, possibly a British submariner, who is murdering local dance hall girls. Caught in the middle of both is the British information officer Major Max Chadwick whose job involves whether, when and how to release information in ways not damaging to British/Maltese relationships.

Malta, as we learn, has played a strategic role in wars throughout history starting with the Phoenicians. This is equally true in 1942. If Malta falls, it could alter the course of this war. The Maltese are beginning to weary of their sacrifices on behalf of the British. When are the British really going to commit enough forces and resources to support Malta? How would the local people react to the news of these murders possibly by one of their occupiers? It made me think of some of the stories that we read now about Afghanistan. Maybe that is Mills’ point.

We in the United States are fortunate not to have had to fight a foreign war on our own soil in recent time. It must be a surreal experience to watch from your rooftop as the neighboring areas are carpet bombed. Mills is especially skilled at taking the reader to the roof and to the trenches to hear and smell and feel the battles.

This is not a book that you will remember for its character development…but you will remember it.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The New South

Bobbie Ann Mason became well known twenty years ago when she wrote “Shiloh and Other Stories”. She wrote a best selling novel, “In Country”, and her memoir, “Clear Springs” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. But she is best known for the strong characters and descriptive details of her short stories.
“Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail” was published in 2001. These stories have a distinct southern flavor but they roam the world from England to Alaska and even to Saudi Arabia. They are about people who are searching the world for meaning in their lives and many of them find themselves back in Kentucky, the place they began their quest.

The first story, “With Jazz”, finds a middle aged woman who has been divorced twice and finds herself visiting her son who lives alone in the woods. She sits down on his bed and felt strange, “as though all my life I had be zigzagging down a wild trail to this particular place.”

In “Tobrah” a single, forty five year old woman goes to her father’s funeral in Oklahoma and finds herself home in Kentucky the caretaker of her father’s four year old daughter. In “Rolling into Atlanta”, Annie Rhodes finds herself working as a sort of undercover agent for the owner of a chain of restaurants. But she finds herself strangely attracted to the people she should be investigating.

Sandra, who has escaped from a small town in Kentucky and found an exciting life in Alaska, now returns home to care for her ailing father. She tries to tell her father about her wonderful life in Alaska, but she realizes that what is important is to be there for her father.

All of Ms. Mason’s characters are strong, independent and striving to understand their world. But in the end they find what they need by zigzagging back to the world they came from.

“Zigzagging Down A wild Trail” is a great collection of short stories by a writer who uses drama, humor and wonderful language to present a clear picture of the South and how it has been changing over the past few decades.