Monday, December 9, 2013

The Butterfly Effect

When you read a Barbara Kingsolver novel you have to be prepared for a certain amount of preaching. Sometimes I think it gets in the way of a good story, but in Flight Behavior her commentary on the effects of global warming on the migratory pattern of monarch butterflies is nested within the powerful story of a farm family.

Dellarobia Turnbow is on her determined way up a forest trail to an ill-advised tryst when she encounters a sight so extraordinary that she assumes it is a sign from God. Only later does she learn that she has stumbled upon a huge colony of monarch butterflies. Usually they winter on a remote mountain in Mexico, but severe floods seem to have altered their path to the woods of the Turnbow farm in rural Tennessee.

The monarchs divide the family and the small town of Feathertown, and when entomologist Ovid Byron and his grad students arrive to study the phenomenon, Dellarobia gets a glimpse of a wider world. No, they don't fall in love – Kingsolver is much too nuanced a writer for that cliché. And she manages to poke gentle fun at earnest treehuggers and ivory tower academics as much as at the Appalachian hillbillies.

But the heart of the story is Dellarobia herself, a hardworking, conflicted wife and mother, whose exposure to the plight of the butterflies leads her to unexpected choices.

If this book piques your interest in monarch butterflies and you live in northern California, I strongly recommend a visit to Natural Bridges State Beach near Santa Cruz. It has a Monarch Butterly Preserve where from mid-October to mid-February you can see these beautiful creatures in their eucalyptus grove habitat.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Looking Back

When I searched for “memoirs” on Amazon I got 226,091 results. Even limiting the search to 2013 produced 21,201 results. It simply isn't possible that there are that many interesting life stories to be told. So I usually avoid them altogether. But Alysia Abbott's Fairyland hit close to home. She was raised by her single father in San Francisco only blocks from where I once lived, and she is less than two years older than my oldest child. But what a different life she led.

The memoir is based mainly on her father Steve's journals, which Alysia discovers after he has died of AIDS in 1992. He was a gay poet and counter culture writer in the post-hippie Haight of the 1970's, and although his love for his daughter is clear, his parenting skills were shaky at best. His journals reveal his desperate desire to maintain his identity as an artist and a gay man, at time when gay liberation was still in its infancy. There were no gay parent role models, and Alicia lived a sometimes lonely and confusing life as she navigated between the structured world of her private school (paid for by her maternal grandparents) and the artistic chaos of her father's bohemian circle.

The understandable narcissism of Alysia's young adulthood collides with Steve's need for her help as the effects of the AIDS virus ravage his health, and Abbott is honest about her ambivalence and resentment. But their love for each other never faltered, and she looks back on the shortcomings of her younger self with honesty and regret.

Abbott's style has a somewhat awkward and sewn-together feel as she tries to combine passages from her father's journals with her own reminiscences. But the novel, written twenty years after her father's death, when she is herself a mother, is a loving tribute to her flawed but devoted father, as well as a nostalgic look at a childhood in fairyland.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Alice Gets It Right

I've been reading Alice McDermott for a long time. Some books I have really enjoyed, other have seemed too slight or too sentimental. (Maybe I am harder on her because we're sort of from the same tribe? I don't know.) So I approached Someone with some doubts. But I needn't have worried. This time Alice gets it just right.

The bland title and the nondescript cover seem appropriate for the narrator Marie. The novel covers more than 60 years of her life, jumping back and forth in time from her childhood in Brooklyn, her married life in Queens, her old age. Marie has no great ambitions, unlike her older brother Gabe, who is destined for the priesthood, but she is, as her mother complains, “a bold piece”. Within her circumscribed world she is a fierce observer of the everyday scenes that are both straightforward and complex. And in each scene McDermott seems to strike just the right tone. The humor is never forced, the grief is never maudlin, the narrative is full of sentiment but never sentimental.

Marie is an ordinary woman leading an ordinary life, but McDermott imbues her with a strong will and a tender heart, and I found the prose pitch perfect and a pleasure to read.

Monday, October 7, 2013

All In The Family

If you haven't read anything about Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, that's a good thing. You can jump in and let this story unfold with no preconceptions. If you have read something about this book, and you think you won't like it, I'll urge you to give it a try. A plot that sounds gimmicky or just plain odd when described by a reviewer can be fascinating in the hands of a good writer. (Kate Atkinson's “Life After Life” is a great example of this).

Narrator Rosemary Cooke begins her story in what seems like an odd place – the middle. But this allows her, now in college at Davis, to look back at her five-year-old self in Indiana, and to introduce her family members in a series of flashbacks, each one filling in a little more of the complicated picture. Once again Tolstoy is correct - “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”. As Rosemary reluctantly begins to examine her memories of her childhood with her sister Fern and her brother Lowell, she must confront hard questions about what it means to be human.

Rosemary's narrative is funny, cynical, sharp – a college girl sometimes too smart for her own good. But she asks hard questions of herself and her family members, and the story that slowly unfolds is touching and heartbreaking.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Artistic Vision

The woman upstairs is mad. Not like Mr. Rochester's wife in “Jane Eyre”. No, Nora Eldridge, Claire Messud's narrator in The Woman Upstairs, is mad in a very different way. “How angry am I? You don't want to know. Nobody wants to know about that”. That's how Nora opens her story, at the age of “forty f***ing two”, as she looks back on the last five years. As a third grade teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts she had grown accustomed to her life as a single woman, a loyal friend, a caring daughter to her aging father. Her mother had warned her before she died not to be dependent on a man, and she had perhaps taken that advice too much to heart, abandoning her dreams of becoming an artist for the security of a teaching job.

And then she falls in love. But not the way you'd expect. It begins with the arrival of a new student in her class, Reza Shahid, son of an Italian mother and a Lebanese father. Nora is taken with his charm and his exoticism, and she is soon drawn to his parents as well. The family seems to possess much that Nora admires and lacks – they are confident, successful, cosmopolitan, larger than life. Soon she is sharing studio space with Reza's mother, herself an aspiring artist, and listening entranced as Reza's father, a visiting professor at Harvard, discusses his theories on ethics and history. She basks in the glow of their attention, and if there are subtle hints that they may not be as devoted to her as she is to them, Nora misses those clues for a long time.  Maybe at some point in our lives we've all been seduced by someone who seems possess what we wish we had.

But we know from page one that Nora is angry, and Messud skillfully crafts her evolution from blind adoration to doubt to disillusionment. And her anger, when it comes, is not resigned resentment but a fire-breathing, expletive-laced rage that leaves me with the hope that Nora's days as an artist and a fully realized woman are just beginning.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


I can't imagine that there is any loss more painful than the death of a child. It is every parent's worst nightmare. But in Paul Harding's Enon, as we learn on the book's first page, Charlie Crosby is faced with that devastating reality. Crosby is the grandson of George Crosby, the Maine clock repairer who was the protagonist of Harding's first novel, the Pulitzer Prize winning “Tinkers”. If you've read that book you will remember the remarkable lyricism of Harding's prose and his powerful descriptions of the natural world.

Those gifts are amply evident in this novel. For a full year Charlie wanders the small town of Enon, observing the changing seasons, numbed by drugs and alcohol, grieving for his daughter Kate. And honestly, he's a mess. The narrative mirrors his disintegrating psyche - fragmentary, hallucinatory, disjointed. Harding doesn't cushion his blows; we see Charlie in all his misery and all his self-pity. He's no hero, but he doesn't ask for our sympathy.

I admire the power and honesty of Harding's prose, but this is a tough book to read, and at times I had to set it aside. But it has a haunting beauty and I always returned to it.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Déjà Vu

I've blogged before about the pleasures and pitfalls of “what if” novels. If the premise is too implausible or clunky I lose interest immediately, but if the author makes a persuasive case, like Tom Perrotta's “The Leftovers” or Michael Chabon's “The Yiddish Policemen's Union, I'm happy to go along for the ride. Kate Atkinson's Life After Life offers a “what if” that is quite a stretch – what if every time main character Ursula Todd dies, some sort of karmic reset button gets hit, and she returns to life. Although she doesn't remember her previous life, a sense of déjà vu causes her to take an alternate path. Confusing? It sounds as if it should be, but once you recognize the rhythm it's surprisingly easy to follow the twisting thread of Ursula's life, from her first cross with death (where she dies at birth) through her childhood, adolescence and adulthood.

This device allows Atkinson to place Ursula in harm's way on both sides in World War II. She sips hot chocolate with Eva Braun, struggles to survive in a bombed out Berlin, but also serves as warden in London during the Blitz. And why didn't this seem like a gimmick? Because I grew more and more fond of Ursula as each new path fleshed out her personality and that of other characters as well. Kate Atkinson's skill kept me following each new narrative with curiosity and affection.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Lost and Found

OK, I guess I'll call this my annual Beach Read. Except this time it was a Listen, not a Read. Certain books work well as audiobooks, and Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple qualifies. The book consists entirely of a collection of documents – e-mails, letters, texts, even FBI reports. That may sound clunky, but Semple's witty, satiric tone makes the narrative flow smoothly.

Bernadette Fox is a Seattle housewife, mother of clever middle-schooler Bee, married to Microsoft super inventor Elgin Branch. And she is not a happy camper. Those of you who are fond of Seattle and admiring of Microsoft may want to skip this one, as Bernadette eviscerates both with a witty (maybe a little snarky) commentary that made me laugh and wince at the same time. In addition she dismisses her fellow middle school mother as 'gnats', and becomes a virtual hermit in a old mansion so rundown that blackberry vines poke through the floorboards and roof leaks are part of the decor.

When Bee decides to redeem her parents' promise of a reward for straight A's (actually straight S's for Surpasses Excellence – the lowest grade is W for Working Towards Excellence) by demanding a Christmas trip to Antarctica, Bernadette's panic at planning the trip (and leaving the house) leads her to a series of unfortunate decisions, while Elgin's workaholic inattention to his family's difficulties makes things even worse. Disaster ensues and Bernadette disappears.

The book's last sections, where Elgin and Bee search for her, are not as sharp and witty, but they do allow Semple to soften her tone and let the family members sort through their problems in an honest and believable way.

Friday, June 21, 2013


Picaresque – it's a word I've always liked, but it's hard to throw into an everyday conversation. But it's a perfect adjective for Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son. defines it as “Of or relating to an episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a rough and dishonest but appealing hero”. And Johnson's hero Jun Do certainly qualifies. But because his adventures take place within the confines of the isolated, secretive, repressive country of North Korea under the regime of Kim Jung-Il, they are far more sinister and harrowing than those of a picaresque hero like Don Quixote or Huck Finn.

But Johnson's story is far more than just a string of tales. In a country where loudspeakers blare non-stop propaganda into apartments and on the streets, Jun Do manages to evolve from a cog in the all-consuming machine of state to an individual with an ethos somewhat warped by his upbringing but not controlled by the group-think of his leaders. Yet his story is not a political polemic – Jun Do warmed my heart and broke it. He made me laugh and cry. Johnson opened my eyes to the incredible hardship and brutality of life in North Korea, even as he wove a story of courage, humor, and even romance.

Friday, May 31, 2013


I've written before about the convention of beginning a novel with a wedding. It allows the author to assemble and identify his cast of characters with a minimum of exposition. David Gilbert's & Sons proves that a funeral works equally well. The deceased is Charles Henry Topping, but the focus of all eyes is Topping's eulogist, reclusive literary giant A.N. Dyer, whose first novel “Ampersand” was the “Catcher in the Rye” of his generation. The death of his friend prompts the aging Dyer to gather his three sons to New York, where he lives in a grand duplex across the street from the Frick Museum.

What follows is a week in the lives of Dyer and his sons, as observed by Topping's son Philip, a somewhat unwelcome house guest and the novel's unreliable narrator. Gilbert examines the lives of the three sons, showing how they became who they are because of their father and in spite of him. And he explores the price that the father has paid in his quest for literary fame. Interspersed throughout the book are letters between Dyer and his friend Charles Topping, stretching from childhood, which offer clues to their uneven friendship.

Gilbert's prose is at its powerful best in examining the complex relationships between fathers and sons, between brothers, between friends, between art and life. He uses New York itself as an element in the drama, and a wonderful scene at a reception at the Frick allows him to satirize the art scene even as his characters reveal funny and serious facets of their complicated connections. I especially liked Gilbert portrayal of Dyer's teenaged son Andy, the product of a mysterious liaison that ended his father's marriage, as he seesaws between adolescent angst and exuberance, struggling to understand his father and to escape his legacy.

But I sometimes found the narrator's presence awkward (I had to keep notes to remember who Philip was and why he was in Dyer's apartment snooping and eavesdropping), and for my tastes it could have been a little shorter.

Friday, May 17, 2013

An Escape

We all have times in our lives when we need a book to give us a temporary respite from reality, and that's what Charlotte Link's The Other Child gave me. Nothing works better at those times than a British murder mystery. Don't ask me to empathize, don't ask me to analyze, just lure me in with two murders (same killer? copycat?), a charming (but menacing?) farm in rural Yorkshire, a host of characters whose back stories slowly unfold as motives and clues swirl around. The narrative stretches backward to World War II, when London children were evacuated to the countryside to avoid the Blitz, and forward to the present day. And just to complicate things, Link opens the book with a scene from 1970 which seems to connect with nothing that follows.

As with all Brit murder mysteries, a rural DI must unravel the clues. I would have liked DI Valerie Almond to be a little more quirky (I guess I've spent too much time with Christopher Foyle and Jack Frost), but Link has constructed a tightly woven psychological thriller that provided me a much needed escape.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013


I think there was part of me that always wanted to be a spy. Years ago I turned down an offer to work at NSA, and perhaps I was secretly expecting a tap on the shoulder from CIA. That may explain why Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth appealed to me. It's the late 60's and the tap on shoulder of Cambridge grad Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) comes from her older lover, a Cambridge professor. She is hired by MI5, the domestic counterespionage service. (Note to the esteemed Mr. McEwan: if you want your character's name to be pronounced Frume why don't you just spell it that way?).

Like virtually all the female employees, Serena's job is as a clerk to the male officers. But her love of literature, despite a degree in math, lands her an assignment to recruit a young fiction writer to unknowingly use his talents to advance the agency's anti-Communist position. She falls for him, it's mutual, and they tumble into a wholly unprofessional but enjoyable affair. She keeps her real job a secret from him, and you just know that's going to come back to haunt her.

McEwan is too good a storyteller to let this unfold in a predictable way. It's never clear until the very end who's lying, who's being deceived, who's in the loop and who's out of it. Serena is the book's narrator, and she looks back from a distance of forty years, but she lets the story reveal itself as the events occur.

I do have one quibble with McEwan. In several of his recent books - “Saturday”, “Solar” and this one - there is a 'smartest man in the room' kind of character who bears more than a passing resemblance to the author, and his female characters seldom seem as smart as the males. Maybe he'll remedy that the next time out. He's too good a writer to be weighed down by a stereotype.

Monday, March 18, 2013

I've Been Sequestered

Yes, I've been sequestered with Patrick Melrose. At least that's how it feels. Once I read Edward St. Aubyn's first book about the fictional Patrick Melrose, “Never Mind”, I was compelled to keep going. How could a writer create such a poisonous family dynamic, in which five-year-old Patrick is a helpless pawn, and still find a way to make me laugh out loud? How could I want to read more about a father like this: “He was determined to harden the calluses of disappointment and develop the skill of detachment in his son. After all, what else did he have to offer him?”. A father whose philosophy was that “what redeemed life from complete horror was the almost unlimited number of things to be nasty about”.

Not surprisingly, this wretched childhood produces an adult Patrick whose attempts to harness his rage and self-pity through drugs and booze, even as he mutters darkly funny observations about the English upper class, lead him through addictions, recoveries, affairs, relapses, marriage, and parenthood in his subsequent novels “Bad News”, “Some Hope” and “Mother's Milk”, as he is all the while unable to permanently right his own foundering ship. 

The final book in the series, “At Last”, opens on the day of the funeral of Patrick's mother. He wrestles once again with his anger and depression, but still finds time to observe of his aunt: “She stood in the doorway looking exhausted by her own haughtiness, as if her raised eyebrows might not be able to stand the strain much longer”.

So clearly this is not a book for readers looking characters they can admire, people whose company they'd enjoy. Patrick would be hell to live with, but I liked being along for the ride. St. Aubyn creates a world where each darkly comic observation is matched with moment of piercing comprehension of the effects of family violence. Patrick asks himself: “What if memories were just memories, without any consolatory or persecutory power?”. As the books ends I was left with at least a shred of hope that this might be possible for him.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Year in the Life

Sometimes what leads me to a book is a straight line, sometimes it's a long twisted path, but this time it was somewhere in between. I loved David Mitchell's “Cloud Atlas', so I tried “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” but I just couldn't get into it. So much for David Mitchell, said I. But then I listened to the podcast of the Slate Audio Book Club where they discussed “Cloud Atlas”. (These podcasts are very entertaining, and I loved the latest one where they discussed “”Pride and Prejudice” on the occasion of its 200th birthday). They enjoyed "Cloud Atlas", but all of them said that their favorite Mitchell book was Black Swan Green, so I decided to try it.

What! Another coming-of-age novel told in the voice of a thirteen-year-old boy? Why I am reading this? But I was hooked immediately. The chapters, each about a month apart, recount episodes in Jason Taylor's life in Worcestershire in 1982 . They don't initially seem to tie together, but they slowly reveal Jason's world and his view of it. He is a sharp observer, perhaps because his stammer makes him wary of talking too much, but also because he is acutely aware of the thin and shifting line that separates a thirteen-year-old from being part of the crowd to being the object of bullying. He has secret aspirations to write poetry, and some of his prose reflects his attachment to the lyric and mystical in nature. But he can also be snarkily funny, keenly observant of the odd characters that are part of small town life, and sharply critical of his parent's crumbling marriage.

If you've been put off by complicated, mannered style of Mitchell's previous works, I highly recommend that you spend a year with Jason Taylor.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Home Again, Home Again

There was a time in 2009 where it felt as if everyone I knew was reading “Olive Kitteridge”, Elizabeth Strout's book about the residents of the small community of Crosby on the coast of Maine. Strout created a series of interlocking stories, some in which Olive is the main character and others in which she stays on the periphery, which sketched with deft strokes the strengths, the flaws, and the complicated inner lives of various residents.

In her latest book The Burgess Boys Maine itself, specifically Shirley Falls, becomes one of her characters. The Burgess boys – Jim and Bob – are in fact grown men, and both have long ago fled Maine for New York, where Jim is a powerful lawyer and Bob is a struggling Legal Aid attorney, always in the shadow of his more accomplished and successful older brother whom he idolizes. Only Bob's twin sister Susie has remained in Maine, and it is her teenaged son Zach's legal difficulties which draw the two men reluctantly back to their hometown. And their return stirs up memories in them both of the childhood tragedy which drove them to leave Maine.

Literary conventions abound – the native returning home, the love/hate relationship between brothers, the corrosive effect of keeping secrets, the clash between natives and outsiders. But Strout avoids stereotypes to create honest characters, as she slowly reveals the ripple effects of a single tragic incident on all of their lives.

Saturday, January 26, 2013


Sometimes prose will impress me as I'm reading it, but when I'm done I feel as though the pieces never really added up to anything. With his latest novel A Hologram for the King Dave Eggers produced just the opposite effect in me.  When I finished it the impact was surprisingly powerful.

In simple, clean language he tells the story of Alan Clay, a 54-year-old consultant, who has come to Saudi Arabia to demonstrate a holographic teleconferencing system to King Abdullah. He hopes to land the IT contract for the King Abdullah Economic City, a massive development being constructed in the desert outside Jeddah. Day after day Clay and his team sit in an unairconditioned tent in the barely started KAEC and wait for the arrival of the king.

There's no doubt that Eggers is paying homage to “Waiting for Godot” - the book's epigraph is a Samuel Beckett quote (“It is not every day that we are needed.”). And there's a bit of Willy Loman in the confused but hopeful Alan Clay. He began his career as a salesman in the most American of companies – Fuller Brush and Schwinn bicycles. But outsourcing has taken his job, and he has lost confidence in the superiority of American industry and his place in the new global economy. Divorced from his wife, concerned about paying his daughter’s college tuition, he struggles to understand a culture where much is forbidden but bans are ignored, where it seems impossible to get a straight answer out of anyone.

Eggers tells his story in a simple straightforward, sometimes comic, way. It's not preachy or political. But he manages to encapsulate so many of the themes of America in the twenty-first century into the travails of one decent man.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Looking Backward

I had two problems with Irish author John Banville's beautifully written Ancient Light, and I think that they are both my fault and not his.

The first is that I accidentally did not start at the beginning. As I was reading, I felt that some of the pieces of the characters' back stories were missing, and I afterward discovered what the problem was. (I always like to read a book 'cold' and only read about it when I'm done). Some of the characters had appeared in two of his earlier books, “Eclipse” and “Shroud”. The main character, aging actor Alexander Cleave, looks back on his life, including the suicide of his only daughter Cass. I kept thinking he would expand on the circumstances that led to her death, but they had been covered in an earlier book. Likewise, Alex has been asked to play the part of literary critic Axel Vander in an upcoming biographical movie, and it is clear that Vander's life had some unsavory chapters, but he too was fleshed out in an earlier novel.

As Cleave prepares for his role he reminisces about his love affair at the age of 15 with the 35-year-old mother of his best friend. We see the drama solely from his perspective, he was the very definition of a callow youth, and for the life of me I couldn't figure out what she saw in him. I know, I know, it's no different from “Lolita” with the genders flipped, but I just wasn't persuaded that Mrs. Grey (as he calls her throughout) would be attracted to this pouting, headstrong, adolescent. The sex was great for him (as he frequently remarks) and I'm sure she enjoyed it too (although he wasn't terribly concerned that she did so), but it felt too much like a male fantasy to me. My 35-year-old self would have been creeped out by the whole idea of it. I guess I don't have enough Mrs. Robinson in me.

Banville is a wonderful writer, and his thoughts on the power and the limits of memory are beautifully expressed, but this one just didn't do it for me.