Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Someone - by Alice McDermott

I like Alice McDermott's work. But this one never really engaged me. I don't know why. It is the story of Marie Commeford, a life in glimpses. Somewhere in the middle she says she wants to find someone who will love her. Perhaps this is the "someone" of the title, but more likely it is Marie herself, an ordinary person who is still "someone". Perhaps we all want that more than anything else: to be "someone". We follow Marie as she weathers tragedy and disappointment, into her life working in a funeral parlor, work that seems to suit her, her personal life with a troubled brother, her life as a mother. Somehow I didn't connect this time but I suspect many others will and have.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

You could call this a different kind of coming-of-age novel. Or a historical novel. Or whatever Mendel's Dwarf is called. Curiously, my copy of Mendel's Dwarf was classified as a "romance" by the library it came from. I don't think this is the right category, although both books do involve romance.

Calliope Helen Stephanides was born twice, you'll read in the first line of the book. Cally was a girl until age fourteen, when she learned that in fact she was born with a condition sometimes called pseudohermaphroditism. She was born with the XY chromosome, identifying her as a male, but she had elements of both sexes. How does this happen? Eugenides is happy to tell us, in this case, that it was a rare genetic disorder passed on down from Cally-Cal's grandparents. They were brother and sister and carried the gene(s) for this condition.

We get to meet Cal's grandparents first, when they were young and lived in a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus, not far from the old city of Smyrna. In 1922, after the end of the First World War, when the area was occupied by the Greeks, it was invaded by the Turkish army. Greeks and Armenians in Smyrna died in what became known as The Great Fire of Smyrna. Desdemona and Lefty, Cal's grandparents, barely escaped. They ended up in the U.S., in Detroit, living with relatives.

It is not uncommon in these cultures for cousins to marry and have children. Sister and brother, not so much. When Desdemona learned that there is a good reason for this ban, she feared what her offspring might become.

We thus get to know her children as well. And finally, their children.

Cal's story is interwoven with the tales of his antecedents and their lives. Their stories are laced with a healthy dose of history. And so it is that while the book is 529 pages long (paperback edition) the story of Cally-Cal is actually pretty light.

I do find it interesting when actual historical events are included in good novels, particularly when those events are not well-known. I am less interested in lives set in a general historical period, where a lot of guesswork goes on. So I found the lives of the grandparents and their silk "farm" and the Great Fire, and the lives of their children in the U.S., interesting and informative. But my curse is that I want so much from characters, and I felt that while there certainly are well-rounded characters there are just so many of them!

It's an absorbing book, worth reading for the atmosphere and events, the sense of history, and for the information on "hermaphrodites", however they are called. It leaves open where one would go from here, having been both female and male.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

City of Bones, by Michael Connelly

One of Connelly's best.

Harry Bosch is sent out to see a bone unearthed by a citizen's dog. The discovery leads to the remains of a twelve-year-old boy, at least 20 years old, in the hillsides of the Santa Monica mountains.

As with all cases, Harry is impatient and wants to find the apparent killer immediately. He works night and day to identify the body,then track down possible suspects. In the course of the investigation he meets Julia Brasher, rookie cop, and finds a soulmate in her.

The investigation leads down one alley and then the other, at each turn encountering snags big and small. As usual, he is dogged by upper levels of police management wanting quick solves and willing to bend the truth to get there. The pursuit of image never interests Bosch and he insists on telling the truth every time.

More than once in the course of the story Bosch asks himself or is asked by others - what does he believe in? He says he believes in the "blue religion". The pursuit of the killers, the pursuit of justice, the truth. He is, however, as Deputy Chief Irvin Irving says, a "shit magnet". Bad things happen to Harry. Perhaps more so in this novel than in others.

IN the end the case is solved. But not particularly satisfactorily. We never really find out what happened, exactly, and the ending is ugly.

I have lived in Harry's body, in a way, for many months, as I read through this series. He would probably not find me interesting but I find him fascinating and very real. That reality comes from Connelly's attention to details. He doesn't have to trot out every injury in a homicide. Describe it fully. He doesn't have to tell us what a rich woman's house appears like to Bosch. He doesn't have to take us into the paperwork. But he does. And that's why I buy it all.

Note: I wrote this in 2009. I don't usually post reviews of mysteries here but I make exceptions.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Bone by Bone, by Peter Matthiessen

There is a lot to recommend this book. It provides remarkable pictures of the US, in particular Florida, during the turn of the 19th to the 20th century. It provides one way to view the world of E.J. Watson, a legendary character in Florida in that time. It offers a bit of a cautionary tale about ecology, albeit in the background. Yet for me its story of Watson was almost relentlessly awful. That is, the things Watson did and the things that were done to him were almost all bad. The small lights in his world did not shine brightly enough to turn his character around, and his actions led to retaliation of the worst sort.

Watson was a real person. The people surrounding him were based on real people, including his three wives and I-forget-how-many children. However, this is not history. It is not even fictionalized biography. It is the author's effort to explain the little he was able to find out about this man. 

Watson's start in life did not bode well for the future. He fled from an abusive dirt-poor home when he was sixteen. He had a powerful work ethic, which helped him build a sugar cane plantation in Florida, along with other efforts. He fell in love seriously with his first wife, who died young. Perhaps his loveless childhood and the loss of this wife were contributors to his view of the world. Try as he might, he was unable to maintain an ethical, decent manner toward all. Instead, when pushed he would push back, and worse. He "did right" by a few people but even in those cases there was a limit to what he could offer. He put himself first.

The book is written in an interesting way, almost, in some places, like a book on the environment or a historical nonfiction book. As Matthiessen has written nonfiction as well, I think it was natural for some of that style to slip in here. The passages about Watson himself are well-drawn, yet I was never able to be fully sympathetic. Not having that connection made it difficult at times for me to push on.

Certainly it is a remarkable book. The author has taken what little he could find and pulled it together in not one but three books. This is the third of a trilogy on the Watson saga. This is the one that gets into the flesh and blood of the man. I found I was less impressed by it than were others because of the constant beating of awful awful awful. It was hard for me to swallow some of his actions and to continue wanting to know what would happen next. I sincerely hope that this book finds other readers who do not find it as much a chore as I did. 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Atonement, by Ian McEwan

I finally got around to reading this. I saw the movie version a few years ago and loved it. I remembered it perhaps too well, so wondered if I would enjoy the book, knowing the ending.

It really is very different. The book is long - 480 pages in my paperback version - so covers a great deal more ground.

As in the film, the book essentially starts out with 13-year-old Briony Tallis viewing, by accident, an incident involving her older sister Cecilia, and Robbie Turner, the son of the family's housekeeper. It is 1935. Cecilia's father favored Robbie and was happy to pay his tuition to top schools. Cecilia is home from college for a break and has uncertain feelings about Robbie.

Briony misinterprets events. Not just the triggering incident but later events. As a result, she tells tales about Robbie, and her actions reverse Robbie's promising future. As we follow members of the family, and Robbie, into later years, we find that both Cecilia and Briony have gone into nursing, but are separated, have not seen each other in years. Robbie has gone into the military and is wounded. As a young student nurse, Briony steals time to write, her love from years ago. She later regrets not writing down the details of her days in nursing, but instead inventing stories that glide over the details. When we visit her again in old age, she is a famous writer and is celebrating her birthday with remaining family members, and she thinks back on these days.

Did she ever atone for her bad judgment as a thirteen-year-old? I leave it for you to find out. 

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn

Dark places, inhabited by unstable, unpredictable characters.

The main character, Libby Day, is 31 at the opening, a bitter, angry young woman not given to trusting others. Or even having others in her life. She's always been a bit standoffish but events in her early life sent her down a road of manipulation and guardedness.

At the age of seven, in early 1985, Libby was in the house when she heard others being attacked. Although she did not see anything, she head enough to make her afraid. She managed to slip out of the house and hide in the nearby woody area. She heard her brother Ben calling for her a little later but remained hidden.

Her mother and two sisters were killed that night: her mother was knifed, then shot in the head, her sister Michelle was strangled in her bed, and her sister Debby was axed to death. Libby herself stayed out all night, made it to a gas station to call for help, and ultimately lost two toes and a finger to frostbite.

Ben was charged with the murder, and in part because of Libby's testimony, he was sent to prison for life. Libby grew up with her aunt, the subject of much attention from the press, and at age eighteen inherited a large amount of money from collections made for her. In her twenties she was persuaded to co-author a self-help book, a pop survival book, but she herself didn't believe much that was in it.

At age 31 she learns she is almost out of money. Getting a regular job just seems too much to her. She feels too tired and she doesn't get along well with others. So when the opportunity to earn a little money by talking to a group of "murder fans" comes along, she takes it. She meets this odd assortment in an old building, where they are split into interest groups - interest in various sensational murder cases. Her case draws interest because many people believe Ben to be innocent. They want to locate the real killer.

Eventually, although she is upset to find that everyone in the group believes Ben to be innocent and her to be complicit in his conviction, she comes up with a plan to get more money from them. She will talk to various key players in the episode, ask them questions that possibly only she can ask. And thus she sets off on a journey that takes on a life of its own.

The chapters alternate between 1985 and "now". Libby's chapters are in first-person, the others in third. Gradually we creep up on the actual night of the murders, inch by inch, through the experiences of Ben, Libby's mother Patty, and a few others, with breaks for Libby's current travels. The technique builds suspense to the point where I found it almost unbearable to go on. Or to not go on.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, by Nathan Englander

This collection of short stories is varied in style and point of view but all represent Englander’s perception of his Jewish faith. One story tells of his investigation into his own family history. Others approach the Jewish holocaust experience. Others let us into the lives of those who experience prejudice. And there are insights into just what it is to be a “good Jew”.

There is some wit or humor in each, though in some cases it is hidden. And not a little irony. As a whole, the collection informed and entertained me. My favorite is the title story. In this story, two Jewish couples get together for dinner. One couple is Hassidic and is visiting from Israel. They have taken new names and do not touch each other in public. The other is of a more relaxed faith. The two had known each other before the first turned Hassidic, and the narrator (the man of the second couple) refuses to think of them in their new names.

Discussion turns on a “non-game” that the wife of the second couple has played in her mind since childhood. If you were non-Jewish and your Jewish friends were threatened, would you risk your life by providing shelter for them?

I liked the idea of this “non-game” as well as the ultimate end of the story, and the insights into the couples it offers. Of course it gives me something to think about myself, about how I would react depending on who the persons are who need help, what they represent to me. Would I be able to ignore what they are to me?

The second story is a bit of a fable, about a woman who is part of one of two families who settled Israel many a year ago, and how through the years fate did not shine kindly on her. In this one we discover some of the basis of the belief in the God-given Jewish state, the unwritten promise. And we can make of it what we will.

“Camp Sundown” I found to be hilarious, if edgy hilarious. The camp has two parts: for elderly folks and for young folks. At times the twain do meet. The conflict that throws it off kilter happens when one elderly couple accuses an elderly man of having been a Nazi in WWII. The camp director, Josh, can’t believe it, as the old man seems to come alive only when playing bridge. Josh takes great pleasure in seeing the man’s eyes light up.

It’s a voyage of discovery, in a way, this collection. Entertaining and biting at the same time. Revealing and confessional.