Friday, December 23, 2011

Mid-Life Crisis

Mid-life crisis – it's a common theme in literature. Think of characters as diverse as Clarissa Dalloway, Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe, Emma Bovary, maybe even Captain Ahab. Hal Lindley, in Lydia Millet's Ghost Lights, is suffering his own version of this ailment. He's a decent man with a decent job with IRS, but he feels anxious and disengaged. He suspects his wife is having an affair with a younger man, and he is unable to move beyond his mourning for the life his daughter had before an accident left her paraplegic.

When his wife's boss goes missing in Belize, Hal impulsively (and drunkenly) volunteers to track him down. He doesn't even like the guy, but it's a chance to escape and sort out his life, and also look like a hero to his family. “Heart of Darkness” lite? Not exactly. But Hal does encounter far more of an adventure than he anticipated, as unexpected events keep overtaking him. He is forced to re-examine his assumptions about himself, and each new event seems to carom him in a different direction.

Hal's wry sense of humor makes for many amusing and touching moments, but be prepared for the fact that not every mid-life crisis leads to satisfaction and enlightenment on the other side.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Favorites Books of 2011

It happens every year - I have trouble winnowing down my list.  The six I finally chose all appealed to me for very different reasons.

The Art of Fielding (I Love Baseball).  Chad Harbach tells a powerful story that is about far more than baseball. 
The Leftovers (What If?) - What an irresistible scenario Perrotta creates  - life after The Rapture.

The City and The City (Double Vision) - A detective story and a sci-fi novel rolled into one - the cleverest book I read all year.
American Subversive (Radical Chic)  - What if the radical underground movement of the Sixties still existed? 

A Visit from the Goon Squad (Fragments of Music) - A kaleidoscope of stories and characters that connect in unexpected ways.
Skylark (A Little Jewel) - A story of one week in the life of a simple family that touches so many universal themes.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Another 'What If?'

The 'what if' that Amy Waldman poses in her novel The Submission is a provocative one – what if architects were invited to anonymously submit plans for a memorial to be located at the site of the World Trade Center, dedicated to the memory of those who died on 9/11. And what if the selection jury - artists, academics, a representative of the New York governor, and a 9/11 widow representing all the grieving families – chose a winner who turned out to be an American-born Muslim named Mohammed Khan?

Inevitably a furor ensues, fueled in part by Khan's aloofness and refusal to explain the influences on his design, which his enemies describe as an Islamic garden meant to glorify the Muslim martyrs who attacked the towers. Waldman creates a host of characters - the radio talk show host interested in stirring controversy, the tabloid reporter intent on building her reputation, the undocumented Bangladeshi widow whose husband worked as a janitor at the towers, the governor whose position is based solely on her desire for higher office, the ne'er-do-well brother of a fallen fireman who relishes his time in the spotlight. At the center of the controversy is Claire Burwell, the rich widow on the jury who initially champions Khan's design but wavers as he resists her pressure to mollify his critics.

Waldman manages to give each of her characters a distinctive voice, and even as the volume rises on their arguments she resists turning them into caricatures. I found it a compelling story that mirrored the real-life emotional and political atmosphere that still exists ten years after 9/11.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Unreliable Narrator

Why did I think Julian Barnes was a difficult read? I don't remember much about “Flaubert's Parrot”, but I seem to remember that I struggled to get through it. So I approached his latest book The Sense of an Ending with some trepidation. But it had just won the Booker prize and was only 176 pages long, so I decided to try him again.

I could have read this book in one big gulp. The first section is a coming of age story, as Tony Webster recounts his memories of his high school and college days – his youthful friendships and his first romance - “In those days, we imagined ourselves as being kept in some kind of holding pen, waiting to be released into our lives.”

In the second section an unexpected letter causes sixty-something Tony to look back on his life and re-examine his memories - “we live with such easy assumptions, don't we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time”. Sorry to keep quoting, but Barnes puts things so succinctly that there's no point in paraphrasing. Tony struggles to unravel the mystery that the letter presents, and in the process he must deal with his own delusions and guilt. 
This is a book about how our memories shape us and how they deceive us, how our emotions color our interpretations of events. Barnes does a masterful job of creating a character who is forced to spin his memories over and over before they finally show him the truth.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Jungle Sci-Fi

Ann Patchett’s latest novel, "State of Wonder" opens in a small town in Minnesota in the dead of winter. But it quickly takes the reader to the depths of the Amazon jungle. Marina Singh is a pharmacologist working for a major drug company. Marina learns that her lab partner and dear friend, Anders Eckman, has died of a sudden fever in the Amazon Jungle. Anders was sent by their employer, Vogel Pharmaceutical Company, to Brazil to bring back information about the progress another employee, Dr. Annick Swenson, was making on a miracle fertility drug.

Marina’s boss and lover, “Mr. Fox”, convinces Marina she has to go to Brazil to find Dr. Swenson and bring the miracle drug to Vogel. Ander’s wife believes Marina can find out what happened to her husband.

So begins Marina’s journey to the depths of the jungle where she confronts her past and finds answers she never imagined. She becomes part of Dr. Swenson’s world among the wonderful Lakashi Tribe. She sees and learns things that her scientific mind cannot grasp and she learns to trust the jungle and its inhabitants, strange as they are. But ultimately Ann Patchett is presenting the question of medical and moral ethics that surround the need to preserve natural resources and the habitats of the native people who live and thrive on these resources, which can be and (more often than not) are, more important than scientific discovery.

Ann Patchett has written a scientific thriller with an ending that is as unexpected as it is touching and sad.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Briefly Noted

Sometimes after I read a book I find that I just don't have much to say about. That's what happened to me with Bobbie Ann Mason's An Atomic Romance. So I'll just give you the bullet points.

What I Liked:
 - Main character Reed Futrell and his feisty mother
 - The Atomic half – Futrell works at a uranium enrichment plant, and Mason does a creditable job of laying out why an intelligent man might end up there.
- Mason's sense of humor, especially with her quirky, complex minor characters

What I Didn't Like:
- The pace is awfully slow
- The Romance half – Futrell's on again/off again relationship with microbiologist Julia Jensen seems added on just to create some tension

Friday, October 21, 2011

I Love Baseball

Yes, I do love baseball. So I'm sure I would have enjoyed Chad Harbach's first novel The Art of the Fielding anytime of year, but it is especially enjoyable to be reading it during the World Series. Last night I watched Texas Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus make a play that Harbach's hero Henry Skrimshander would surely have admired.

“The Art of the Fielding” is also the name of the dog-eared book that Henry studies and reveres. Written by a Hall of Fame shortstop named Aparicio Rodriguez, the books dispenses wisdom such as “The shortstop is a source of stillness in the center of the defense. He projects this stillness and his teammates respond”. And that pretty well defines Henry, a freakishly talented and graceful shortstop . His arrival on the baseball team at a small Wisconsin college called Westish propels the Harpooners, so named because Melville briefly visited the school on a book tour, from mediocrity to improbable success. Henry and his best friend, catcher and team captain Mike Schwartz, form a powerful alliance of hard work, loyalty and dedication to baseball, generously sprinkled with the literary references that Mike supplies for every occasion.

Harbach clearly loves baseball and I hope that even non-fans will appreciate his ability to describe the beauty and the grit of a baseball game.  But this book is not just the baseball equivalent of “Hoosiers”. He is tackling big topics – friendship, failure and redemption, first loves (both gay and straight), errors made both on and off the field. It's about coming of age, and there's a little Ahab in each of the characters as they deal with their own versions of the elusive white whale. 

PS Harbach was no doubt tipping his hat to Hall of Fame shortstop Luis Aparicio with the first name of his fictional author, and I guess the last name could be an homage to the many players with the last name of Rodriguez. But I prefer to believe he was thinking of hardworking catcher Pudge (much like Mike Schwartz) rather than pretty-boy A-Rod.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Back to the Woods

If you read Charles Frazier's best-selling novel “Cold Mountain”, the suspenseful odyssey of a Civil War deserter making his way home to the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina, you may remember Frazier's talent for evoking the beauty and mystery of that landscape. He returns to that locale in his latest novel Nightwoods. Even the covers are similar, but this time the black silhouetted mountain scene has a red sky rather than a blue one. (Seems a little obvious, Random House).

This time the story is set in the early 1960's, but it takes a while to determine that, because the main character Luce is living virtually off the grid in an abandoned mountain lodge. Her self-imposed isolation is disrupted by the arrival of her niece and nephew, twin children of her sister Lily, who has been murdered by their stepfather Bud. The kids are clearly damaged goods – feral and unwilling to speak, fond of starting fires and killing roosters. And rotten-to-the-core Bud has found a smart lawyer and beaten the murder charge. Add to the mix Stubblefield, son of the deceased lodge owner, who has returned to examine his inheritance. (For some reason he is known only by his last name while all the other characters are called only by their first names). Seeing Luce rekindles in him a teenaged crush he had developed when he saw her at a poolside beauty contest, wearing sunglasses and eating a frozen Mars bar. And it's just that kind of detail that makes Frazier so enjoyable to read. He's a great storyteller, and always slips in just the right detail to make his characters come alive. Here's how he introduces Bud: “He had a criminal record by the time he was barely a teenager, caught shoplifting a coat pocket of yellow Sun 45s from a dime store”.

There's little Carson McCullers in this book (like her, Frazier has some characters not painted in shades of gray but clearly defined as good or evil), and some of Cormac McCarthy's malevolent intensity, but neither matches Frazier's ability to make you see, hear, smell, feel the woods of Appalachia. And the suspenseful last section of the book (other than the too tidy last chapter) kept me riveted.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Leaving Home

Are novels which begin with a wedding more common than I realized? Jonathan Dee's “The Privileges” began that way, and Jean Thompson's The Year We Left Home opens in 1973 with the wedding of Anita Erickson in Grenada, Iowa. The device provides a great way to introduce the Erickson family – the simple hardworking parents, their four children, and their Viet Nam vet cousin Chip.

The books spans thirty years. Each chapter jumps forward in time and catches us up on the lives of some of the characters. Often a chapter reads like a short story – a fully developed episode in its own right. But this is definitely not a case where an author has simply sewn short stories together. Each episode expands and enriches our understanding of the characters and of the forces that pull the family members together and push them part. I especially enjoyed the arc Thompson created for youngest son Ryan as he moves from an earnest political science major to a disillusioned grad student to a successful IT professional and disappointed husband and father. Thompson sometimes weaves Ryan's story with that of his damaged and confused cousin Chip, deftly contrasting their two paths through thirty years of history.

Even when a storyline seems headed down a predictable path, as when rebellious younger daughter Torrie is severely injured in an accident, Thompson turns the narrative in a fresh, unexpected direction. Throughout the book some characters spin far from Iowa, others stay close, but the pull towards home is strong, and Thompson paints an honest, sometimes funny, often poignant portrait of an American family.

Friday, September 16, 2011

What If?

I always say that I don't like fantasy or sci-fi books, and yet I love books that ask 'What if?' and then spin out a believable alternate universe. Tom Perrotta's 'What if?' is a doozy – what if The Rapture happens? And what if, instead of taking just God-fearing Christians, it disappears a seemingly random assortment of Christians, Jews, atheists, agnostics, whatever? What happens to the people who don't make the cut – The Leftovers?

The “Sudden Departure”, as politicians and scientists insist on calling the event, leaves in its wake a confused and anxious populace. Perrotta focuses on the inhabitants of the town of Mapleton as they find ways to deal with this new reality. Frank Garvey, recently elected mayor, is trying to maintain harmony and civility in the town even as his own life is in upheaval. His wife Laurie has joined the wonderfully named Guilty Remnant, who band together in group homes, take vows of silence, wear only white, and silently stare down those who don't share their guilt in order to remind them that God is watching. They also smoke like fiends, following their mantra “We Smoke to Proclaim Our Faith”. His son Tom is in the thrall of cult leader Holy Wayne, who has promised the members of his Healing Hug movement that one of his teen-aged brides will produce the Miracle Child. And his daughter Jill is simply trying to cope with the loss of her mother and the trials of high school.

There is a smattering of humor but a fair share of bleakness in Perrotta's vision of a post-rapture world, but he presents his characters in a way that made me sympathetic to even the looniest among them. His 'what if' world seemed surprisingly believable and engaging, and even managed to leave me with a sense of hope for Kevin and his family, and for Mapleton.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Train Travel

The less I know about a book when I start reading it, the happier I am. It's the same reason I hate watching movie trailers – they often reveal too much of the plot. So when I began Tessa Hadley's The London Train, I remembered vaguely that it had gotten decent reviews, but that's it.

I love riding trains, I love stories that take place on trains (sometimes romantic, sometimes sinister), I love London, so it was a natural. The main character Paul (we never get a last name), is a bookish writer/critic who lives in rural Wales with his second wife and two young daughters. He occasionally takes the train to London for radio interviews or BBC projects, but when his daughter from a first marriage abandons her university studies for a squalid flat in London with her Polish boyfriend, his trips become more frequent and his life more complicated.

I am following this well-written story when, about halfway through the book, I turn a page and discover that the London Train story has ended and a new one, called “Only Children” is beginning. I check the front cover. Yes, it clearly says “a novel”. But this second story is about Cora and her husband Robert and her sister-in-law Frankie. What happened to Paul? And Elise (second wife)? And Pia (older daughter)?

For several days I kept trying and failing to get into this second story. I was still annoyed that the book was two novellas disguised as a novel. But finally I soldiered on, started to get interested in this second cast of characters, enjoying Hadley's observant but unsentimental writing, when lo and behold, the two stories began to fold together in an elegant, unforced and satisfying way. Naturally the London train is involved.

So I guess the moral is that the adage about judging a book by its cover sometimes swings both ways.

Friday, September 2, 2011

How The Other Half Lives

A wedding is a great way to start a novel. It allows the author to throw together a lot of characters, establish their relationship to each other, and put them under stress. Jonathan Dee's The Privileges has a terrific first chapter that drops us into the wedding of Adam and Cynthia Morey. Just out of college, poised on the lip of adulthood, undaunted by a heat wave, the couple launch themselves fearlessly into marriage as the chapter ends.

By the next chapter they are settled in Manhattan with two young children. After a disappointing start at a large Wall Street firm, Adam has joined a small private equity company where he is very successful. But the couple live a strangely isolated life. The children barely know their grandparents, and the Moreys' youth, attractiveness and success make other parents at the children's exclusive school resent them. They seem to feel that they exist on some higher moral plain, so when Adam sees a way to increase his wealth by illegal means, he acts not so much out of greed as out of a sense that it proves his superiority to those who blindly follow the rules. Cynthia discovers that there is very little in life that money can't buy, and she happily passes this wisdom along to her children.

If this were the New York of an Edith Wharton novel Cynthia and Adam would be punished for their transgressions. Instead Dee gives us an inside look at life of the very rich and amoral. If he didn't write so elegantly I might have turned away in disgust, but instead I marveled at his ability to make a family dysfunctional and sympathetic at the same time.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Chance Encounters

Who knew that George Washington wrote a small book/pamphlet entitled “100 Rules of Civility”, to instruct young men in the rules of accepted social behavior? Apparently Amor Towles did and based his first novel on the “Rules of Civility”.

The Prologue to the novel is narrated by a middle aged woman who is at an art gallery with her husband viewing photographs taken of people in New York City in the 1930’s. She recognizes the subject of two contrasting photos and is taken back three decades in her memory.

The story begins on a snowy New Year’s Eve night in 1937. The narrator is Katey (Katya) Kontent. She and her roommate, Eve (Evelyn) Ross, from a boarding house for young women, are headed to a Greenwich Village jazz bar with three dollars between them to ring in the New Year. Enters, Tinker (Theodore) Grey. (Everyone has a nickname.) His eyes are royal blue, he is dressed in a tuxedo with a cashmere coat over his arm. The girls are intrigued. He buys them drinks and leaves, to instantly return, with a bottle of champagne. The three make New Year’s resolutions and plans to see each other before the week is over. But by the end of the first week of 1938 a tragic accident occurs and the lives of the three new friends are changed forever.

Our narrator/protagonist, Katey, enters the fast lane of the late 1930’s with glitzy New York and Long Island parties and a new glamorous job. Eve and Tinker are on their own glamorous, disastrous journey. Their journeys take us through the best of New York City in the late 1930’s. It is almost as if the city itself is a character.

We watch as these three characters evolve, disintegrate and reinvent themselves. And what we see is not always what really is. Why does the charming, rich, successful Tinker carry a worn, underlined copy of George Washington’s “100 Rules of Civility”? Why does Eve rebuke all offers of financial help from her well meaning father? Why does Katey try not to talk about her parents?

Amor Towles has written a wonderful period piece with relatable characters and a strong, witty and reliable narrator who relates an intriguing, dramatic story.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Double Vision

I've always been a fan of police novels – hard-boiled detectives, mean streets, unsolved murders. (Richard Price's “Lush Life” is a favorite). And although I'm not a sci-fi fan, I do admire writers who can create an alternate universe. I loved Michael Chabon's invention in “The Yiddish Policemen's Union”. Now I've found a novel that does both these things, and the result is a very entertaining read.

China Miéville’s The City and The City starts out as a standard crime story. Inspector Tyador Borlú is investigating a murder – the dead body of an attractive girl found in an abandoned van in the city of Beszel, somewhere in post-Soviet Eastern Europe. Beszel sits next to another city called Ul Qoma – much like Buda and Pest, Tel Aviv and Jaffa, or the more prosaic Minneapolis and St. Paul. But it doesn't work quite the same way. Early on in the book, strange terminology is sprinkled in with the standard police procedural dialogue as Miéville slowly reveals that these two cities - governed by separate bodies, guarded by separate police forces, with different languages and architecture, vigorously enforcing their isolation from each other – occupy the same geographical space.

I could now give you twenty examples of the incredibly clever ways in which Miéville makes this absurd situation seem utterly believable and often amusing. But they're all spoilers, and since I really enjoyed reading this book with no advanced knowledge of this intricate conceit, I refuse to ruin it for someone else. But I can tell you that he manages to remind me of Raymond Chandler, Franz Kafka and George Orwell all at the same time.

PS This is a great book to read on a Kindle if, like me, you are unfamiliar with words like machicolation, quango, boscage, lingam, and sigil.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Walking in Manhattan

I've always liked books that give me a real sense of the geography of a city. I've even been known to pull up Google maps so I can follow the footsteps of a character. There are few books that do this better than Teju Cole's Open City. The diary-style book records the wanderings and musings of Julius, an African living in Morningside Heights as he pursues a psychiatric fellowship at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. Julius was born in Lagos, Nigeria to a German mother and a Nigerian father, but has now adopted New York as his home, a home in which he still feels himself to be an outsider.

Sometimes Julius comments on the sights he is seeing or on people he meets during his walks; at other times he thinks back on his childhood in Nigeria, or reflects on books he has read or pieces of music he admires. During a trip to Brussels, where he makes a feeble attempt to find his German grandmother, he meets a Moroccan Muslim at an internet cafe, and ponders the immigrant experience that they share.

As you can tell, there isn't a lot of plot. What moves the book forward are not events and dialogue but rather Julius's thoughts, ideas and questions. But it isn't boring. Julius is an interesting, insightful character, and I felt his loneliness and isolation in the honesty and openness of Cole's prose. And yet, late in the book there are revelations that made me realize that even a person as frank and open as Julius can still be blind to his own failings. The revelation is such a shock that I still wonder whether Cole was more heavy-handed than he needed to be.

Cole's prose, though not showy, can still create some striking images. For a long time I will remember the scene where Julius, accidentally leaving Carnegie Hall by an emergency exit, finds himself on a rain-slick fire escape four stories above the street. As Julius recounts this he seems to embody all that it means to be human. I'm looking forward to taking another walk with Teju Cole.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Expatriates in Paris

There is something about the life of Ernest Hemingway that never fails to intrigue an audience. He was always bigger than life. Paula McLain has written a bestseller about Hemingway’s life in Paris in the 1920’s. McLain’s novel, “The Paris Wife”, is the story of this time through the eyes of Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife.

Hadley and Ernest meet in Chicago in October of 1920. She was a twenty eight year old “spinster” living with her sister and her husband in St. Louis. He was a twenty one year old dashing, war hero who wanted to write a great novel.

He proposed, they married. After one wonderful evening with Sherwood Anderson (the author of “Winesburg, Ohio) Ernest is convinced that everyone and everything interesting in the world of writing is in Paris. And so begins the story of Ernest and Hadley in Paris, where Hadley attempts to be the perfect wife to the talented, moody, complex Ernest.

This novel falls into the category of historical fiction as the author will admit that she mined Hemingway’s posthumously published memoir, “A Moveable Feast”, about his life in Paris. But in “The Paris Wife” the narrator is Hadley. The story tells of the intricate relationships that Ernest had with John Dos Passos, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Gerald and Sara Murphy, and other people who made Paris in the 1920’s the exciting, hard drinking, self indulgent haven for American expatriates. The group made wild trips to Pamplona, Spain to see violent bullfights, where Ernest set his famous novel, “The Sun Also Rises”. Their life was a maze of drinking, traveling around Europe and finding the right setting for Ernest to write.

I found Hadley to be a strong, interesting character who tries to remain dignified when her world begins to fall apart. Perhaps she took on more than she could handle but she, most likely, had no choice once she became part of Hemingway’s world. “The Paris Wife” is a great story about a special time in the history of American literature through the eyes of a woman who tried to hold her own as she was carried away by a strong, uncontrollable force-----Ernest Hemingway.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Hills of Virginia

Josh Weil was born in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and according to his bio he now “divides his time between New York City and a cabin in southwestern Virginia, where he is at work on a novel”. It's easy to tell that he has a strong connection to the rugged hill country between Virginia and West Virginia where the three novellas of The New Valley take place. The remoteness and stark beauty of the landscape seem to color the lives of each of the main characters. These are isolated men trying to make human connections, and their stories are sometimes amusing but more often haunting and heartrending.

There's something reminiscent of Ron Carlson or Daniel Woodrell in his powerful descriptions of decent but inarticulate men and unforgiving nature, but some of Weil's characters are unconventional enough to remind me a little of Flannery O'Connor. Make no mistake, these are not upbeat tales. Not recommended for readers who like uplifting endings, but I look forward to reading the novel that emerges from that remote cabin.

Friday, July 22, 2011

A Little Jewel

I'm always looking for book ideas, so when I stumbled onto a link to Time magazine summer reading recommendations from 23 authors (Pack Your (Book) Bag) I was happy to explore it. Some recommendations were for books not yet published, some were for books I'd already read, some just didn't appeal to me.

But Deborah Eisenberg's choice of Skylark, written by  Hungarian writer Dezso Kosztolanyi in 1924, was really intriguing. Here's her description: “On the surface, it seems very simple and local, the story of a homely girl in a small Hungarian town, but it is electrifying, hilarious and unbelievably painful. It encapsulates just about all of human experience, like a magic diorama you enter that becomes absolutely real and endless.”

I completely agree. This poignant short novel, covering a week in the life of a simple family, reaches from comedy to tragedy and touches universal themes so subtly and honestly that I was overwhelmed. If you're interested, don't read anything else about it, just dive in and let it carry you.

PS: You've probably all experienced earworms, those annoying commercial jingles or cheesy sitcom themes that won't leave your brain. Lucky me. My earworm for the past ten days has been the beautiful Hoagy Carmichael/Johnny Mercer jazz classic “Skylark”. Check it out on iTunes – Carmen McCrae and Tony Bennett have great classic versions, beautiful instrumentals by Wynton Marsalis and Art Blakey, and k.d. Lang's version is a knockout.

Monday, July 11, 2011

How can the deaf understand sound?

Have you ever wondered about deafness? How does one live in a silent world? In Myron Uhlberg's "Hands of My Father", a memoir about growing up the hearing son of two deaf parents, he tries to answer his father's questions about the nature of sound. "Does sound have rhythm? Does it rise and fall like the ocean?" Myron's father Louis expresses himself using his hands, face and body, methods which are just as powerful as speech. But those who cannot understand sign are cut off from much of his communication. Heartbreakingly, this includes Louis' own parents and siblings.
Young Myron, born in 1933, is the bridge between the worlds of the hearing and the deaf, interpreting each to the other as soon as he can speak aloud and sign. He cycles back and forth between adult responsibilities and childhood desires, even being first intermediary for the needs of his infant brother.
This is a sweet, loving story of a family with special challenges and special bonds. The deaf parents have rich and complex interactions but spend their lives isolated from the world outside. Their son takes on huge responsibilities yet his life is immeasurably enhanced by his unique perspective.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Poison in Manhattan

Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York is a book with something for everyone. At its heart it is the story of New York City's first medical examiner Charles Norris, and his toxicologist Alexander Gettler. At the time of Norris’s appointment in 1918 the coroner's office was run by incompetent political cronies with no background in medicine or science. The two men worked tirelessly to turn the office into a model of forensic science. But don't be fooled by that dry description.

Each chapter has a poison as its title, and each chronicles events where poison plays a role. Are you a fan of CSI? The two men use their skills to discover murders by poison (chloroform) and to exonerate the innocent (thallium).

Are you interested in the history of New York City during prohibition? Blum takes you through the traffic clogged streets of Manhattan (carbon monoxide) and into the speakeasies (methyl alcohol). And if you've never understood the role of the US government in enforcing prohibition by endangering the lives of its citizens, you'll be interested in the story of this marriage of chemistry and politics.

Do you like stories about unlikely heroes? There could hardly be an odder couple than the patrician Norris, a blue-blooded descendant of bankers, and the Hungarian Jewish immigrant Gettler, who loved betting on the horses, and whose Irish Catholic in-laws brewed beer throughout Prohibition one floor below his flat.

Are you a science geek? Blum explains in detail the chemical makeup of the poisons and the lab tests used to detect them. (I skipped some of this).

All in all, I found it an entertaining and informative read.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Twelve Years Later

In John Burnham Schwartz's 1998 novel “Reservation Road” a fatal hit-and-run accident has occurred and the story revolves around two fathers – the father of the victim and the driver of the car. Schwartz's new book Northwest Corner picks up the story twelve years later. I didn't read the first novel, and although I started to watch the movie (I'm a big Mark Ruffalo fan), the death of a child and its aftermath was just too dark for me and I bailed.

But when I started reading the sequel I was immediately drawn in. The short (sometimes less than a page) chapters jump between the points of view of five characters: Dwight Arno, the hit-and-run driver who has served prison time and moved to California, his college age son Sam, who was in the car when the crime was committed but was lied to by his father about what had happened, Dwight's ex-wife Ruth, his quasi girlfriend Penny, and Emma, a classmate of Sam's and sister of the accident victim. The most powerful chapters deal with Dwight and Sam. Both father and son are still reeling from the accident and its aftermath. Their emotions are raw, their judgments are flawed, and they are capable of doing to damage to each other. It can be painful to watch as they struggle with their demons, but I couldn't look away.

For me Dwight Arno belongs to Flawed But Decent Male school of Updike's Rabbit Angstrom and Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe. If you didn't find much sympathy for those characters you might want to skip this book. But I was drawn to Schwartz's minimalist style and his ability reveal the humanity in all his characters.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Fragments of Music

"Time's a goon, right?" says a character in Jennifer Egan's remarkable book A Visit From The Goon Squad.  Time is one of many elements that Egan plays with, fragments, flips, turns back on itself.  I could describe this as a series of linked short stories, a common form in today's fiction, as in "The Imperfectionists" (Reporting From Rome) or "Great House" (Loss and Memory), but Egan's attempt is more ambitious. 

The book's thirteen chapters, divided into Part A and Part B like sides on an LP (showing my age with that reference), follow characters from the punk rock scene of San Francisco in the 70s, through the New York suburbs of the 90s, to a post-modern Manhattan, with side trips to Africa and Naples.  In each chapter the tone, the voice and the point of view change, as the stories move forward and backward in time in a discontinuous but not confusing flow.  Music, both the creative and business side, is an element in many of the stories, and I can easily imagine that someone could create a CD with a track for each chapter.  Characters appear as their young and older selves, overlapping with each other in unexpected ways.

Occasionally I thought that Egan tried to be a little too clever, but overall I was fascinated by the the complicated, interwoven lives of her characters. 

Note to e-readers:  There is a wonderful chapter created by a teenage girl as a Power Point slide show which you will need a magnifying glass to read.  But it's worth it.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Everyman in Hitler's Berlin

"In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin"
by Erik Larson

This is the tale of William E. Dodd, the U.S. ambassador to Germany in 1933-37, a somewhat naive academic appointed by Roosevelt after the post had been declined by four others. Dodd, Chair of the history department at University of Chicago and author of Woodrow Wilson's biography, desired nothing more than an undemanding position which would allow him time to write his master work "Rise and Fall of the Old South".

The Dodd family, including 2 adult children (Martha, age 24, is a key figure here, partly due to the detailed diaries she kept) was determined to live in Berlin modestly, in deference to Americans suffering during the depression. This included shipping their beat-up Chevrolet to use abroad, at a time when Hitler's men flaunted their power in giant black touring cars.

Hitler's appointment as Chancellor in Jan 1933 was followed immediately by a brutal spasm of state-condoned violence, as storm troopers rampaged, beating, arresting and sometimes murdering tens of thousands of communists, socialists and Jews. Dodd and other diplomats watched these events, imagining that they couldn't continue, that Hitler could not possibly maintain power, and seizing on any sign that he was moderating. We see infatuation with the regime, fruitless efforts to work with it, and either gradual or quick realization of the significance of what was happening.

Eventually it was clear to all those posted in Germany that whatever Hitler said or didn't say about wanting peace, Germany was actively re-militarizing in violation of the Treaty of Versailles.

We have the benefit of hindsight, so it's a fascinating challenge to put oneself in the place of these diplomats. They naturally socialized with high Nazi officials such as Goebbels and Goring. Daughter Martha, always a fun girl, had affairs with the head of the Gestapo and the future head of the KGB simultaneously.

This is an excellent book, a slice of time containing maybe a few too many diplomatic communiques, but compelling all the while.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Unbroken but maybe bent a bit

What are the limits of human endurance? And what gives people the strength to persevere? "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption" opens with a riveting glimpse of men adrift for weeks on a bathtub-sized raft in the Pacific, stalked by sharks hurling themselves onto the raft, then strafed by a Japanese plane. I was hooked immediately. Author Laura Hillenbrand (Sea Biscuit) next takes us back to the beginning, tracing the life of Louis Zamporini, troublemaker kid, thief, Olympic miler and WW II airman missing in the Pacific. As his ordeal unfolds, one cannot imagine what will come next. Readers learn about competitive running, the war in the Pacific, human endurance, frailty and redemption. We see yet again what men in war are subjected to, how they rise to the occasion, and the price they pay. Tough, headstrong Louie Zamporini in particular was well equipped to persevere. This biography is a great read.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Jersey Girl

“There is just something about New Jersey that breeds a certain type of life and by extension, a certain type of person.” This is the opening line of Kristen Buckley’s coming of age memoir, “Tramps Like Us”. Kristen Buckley is a musician, a screen writer and a novelist. She has written a very funny, rather quirky memoir about how she got from the suburbs of New Jersey to the streets of Los Angelus, via New York City.

Kristen Buckley begins the story with the tragic-comedy event of her physician father announcing to his six year old daughter, “Now that that you’re six you don’t need a dad anymore.” Kristen promptly went home to her surviving parent and climbed into bed with her mother and her Korean brother and sister who had been adopted two months earlier.

And so began the odyssey of surviving in New Jersey in “70’s Divorce Hell”. From the exploding septic tank on the sprawling front lawn to the long lost Korean sibling who is rescued by Kristen’s mother, but whose knowledge of English is limited to profane four letter words.

For readers growing up in the seventies and eighties this story will have a certain resonance. But for those of us who didn’t grow up in that era or in New Jersey, this story is just plain fun. Buckley has a wry sense of humor, not to mention what a precocious, wise child she was. It is fun to laugh and commiserate with her and this crazy family as that make their way through a difficult time with a great sense of humor and determination.

By the end of this charming, laugh out loud story you are really routing for a girl who really didn’t care what anybody else thought as she tried to make sense of her wacky life. I love the section where she lists (the) 66 famous people who are from New Jersey. With this story, and Kristen Buckley’s accomplishments, there are now 67!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Streets of San Francisco

When a novel is set in a city I know well, it can sometimes be distracting. Instead of focusing on plot and character, I'm trying to figure out where a house is located, or which bus a character is riding, or whether the author screwed up the geography (as in the chase scene in “Bullitt”). Carol Edgarian's Three Stages of Amazement is set mainly in San Francisco, and she makes the city a character in her story. The wealthy VC mogul Cal Rusch and his society A-list wife Ivy live in the Gold Coast section of Broadway, and Cal's niece Lena lives with her doctor husband Charlie Pepper in a disgustingly pink bungalow seven blocks to the north (must be the Marina). When Cal's butler Paco is sent down the hill to deliver a party invitation to the Peppers, Cal watches from his picture window as the butler struggles back up the street. Am I thinking about the repercussions of this invitation? No, I'm thinking “Take the Lyon Street steps!”.

But never mind. Charlie and Lena accept the invitation to an over-the-top engagement party for the Rusch's daughter Paige, and I get to be a fly on the wall as guests sample canapés from Jardiniere and Chez Panisse and listen to Norah Jones. But there's trouble brewing. Charlie, who has abandoned surgery to create a start-up for his invention - a surgical robot - needs money, Cal wants to invest, and Lena can't stand her uncle and doesn't want hubby to accept his filthy lucre. To further thicken the plot, an old boyfriend of Lena's, an impossibly hot Italian named Alessandro, works with Cal. He dumped Lena and she married Charlie on the rebound. Can this marriage be saved?

I'm being a shade too flip with all this. Edgarian creates far more with her story and characters than just a romantic fiction. She has an eye for the details of the lives of the super-rich, but she can also create a complex portrait of a women stretched thin by the stress of financial woes, a sick child, and an absent husband. The story takes some unexpected turns, some of which made it hard for me to return my focus to the main characters, but it was an honest picture of a marriage between two flawed but all too human people.Enhanced by Zemanta

Friday, June 3, 2011

Welcome Back, Jackson

I'm a Kate Atkinson fan from way back. When I read her debut novel “Behind The Scenes At The Museum” in 1997 I thought it was one of the funniest and most original books I'd read in a long time. Her next two novels were a disappointment for me, but then in 2000 she wrote “Case Histories” and launched the career of curmudgeonly private investigator Jackson Brodie. I've followed Brodie through three crime novels and now I've happily finished the fourth – Started Early, Took My Dog.

Brodie has long been haunted by the unsolved murder of his sister when she was a teenager. Perhaps that's what makes him sympathetic to his current case, a woman in New Zealand searching for the biological parents who gave her up for adoption in Leeds in 1975. The narrative switches between 1975 and the present, with each backward look revealing a little more of the crimes and cover ups that occurred. This plot weaves together with yet another case of a a child separated from a mother, an aging soap opera actress, a guilty conscience, tea shops, murdered women and Emily Dickinson. And then there's the story of the dog.

Atkinson is a master at mixing humor and violence, and at making the intersections of diverse characters and plots seem accidental rather than contrived. Brodie, simultaneously tough and introspective, broods about ex-wives (including the one who took him to the cleaners), lost loves and difficult children as he follows trails and avoids dismemberment. I hope Kate Atkinson isn't done with Jackson Brodie, because I certainly am hoping to visit him again.

PS The BBC is airing a six part “Case Histories” series in June – let's hope it makes its way to Masterpiece Whatever.
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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Adventure in Tuscany

If reading The Ambassadors by Henry James is like running a marathon, then reading Up at the Villa by W. Somerset Maugham is like a walk in the park. Instead of James’ paragraph- or page-length sentences with their convoluted structure of clauses within clauses, Maugham’s writing is clean and straightforward. It’s clear who or what is the subject of the sentence. Maugham’s meaning is unambiguous.

Young Mary Panton is recovering from the death of her husband a year earlier. Friends who own a villa outside of Florence, Italy, have offered her the use of the place to recover her spirit and decide the direction her life will take. Maugham’s descriptions of the Tuscan countryside, the air, the gardens, the furnishings of the villa are so vivid. It is easy to imagine why Tuscany continues to draw travelers in and to hold them there.

Mary has a suitor who has proposed marriage. When he is called away from Florence for a few days on business, Mary promises to give him her answer upon his return. During those few days, events take several unexpected turns and other men enter the drama: brash, rich, ne’er-do-well Rowley and Karl, an impoverished refugee of war from Austria. It should come as no surprise: If one carries a gun, one should expect that it will go off.

The final line of the book sums it up nicely: “Darling, that’s what life’s for – to take risks.” You’ll have to read the book yourself to find out who is speaking and why.

The paperback copy that I read was published in 2000 by Vintage International. The cover is a beautiful rendition of a painting by Maxfield Frederick Parrish, The Villa Scassi, Genoa from 1904. By comparison the cover of the current edition is so atrocious that I couldn’t bring myself to add it to our blog. I used a copy of the painting itself instead.