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.