Monday, October 27, 2008

The Peppered Moth, by Margaret Drabble

Long ago I happened upon a couple of books by Margaret Drabble at a used book store. I read them and loved them and compared this Margaret to another: Margaret Atwood. So of course I had to have this book.

Those earlier books were lovely stories about women, thoughtfully written and deeply absorbing. This one, written so many years later, has a grace and beauty that only years of writing can possibly create.

Drabble admits in an Afterword that the book is really about her own mother. Not exact, of course, but her mother and where she lived is deeply imprinted on Drabble and in this book. This admission helps me understand it a bit better.

It is a generational story. It begins and is permeated by the life of Bessie Bawtry, raised in a small industrial town in northern England, a town of coal mines and dirt and cancers. Bessie is intelligent and her parents encourage her pursuit of the intellectual. Their encouragement is supplemented by that of an exceptional teacher, and ultimately Bessie wins a scholarship to Cambridge. It's her ticket out. But she doesn't really take it.

Why she throws away what she could have become and instead becomes a bitter, angry woman is not entirely clear, and Drabble the author and daughter tries to come to terms with it and to be objective and as fair as possible. The title, referring to a controversial discourse about natural selection - the peppered moth was believed to develop its darker self in response to the coal-mining darkness of northern England, suggests that we adapt to our environment and that wherever we may move we cannot shake off that earlier adaptation, that response to our early environment. Drabble may be onto something here in how she portrays Bessie as someone who does not adapt to a foreign world particularly well, in spite of gifts that seem to give her a chance.

Throughout the book we can't help but be aware of the author, for that matter, as she tells the story, sometimes breaking in to explain what she doesn't know how to explain. She works her way from Bessie to Chrissie to Faro, three generations, with additional hints going farther back, farther and farther. Her narrative style is to jump forward and backward as skillfully as a dancer, for we never lose the step.

How did this person get from here to there? she asks, again and again, and she tries to ferret it out. More, how did this family, this line, this gene, get from way way back there to here, or how is it that it got no further than this? Good questions, good fodder, terrific book.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid

I'm frankly a little mystified by my own reaction to this book. I am a citizen of the USA who is not blinded to the faults of this country's leaders nor to the ignorance of so many of its citizens. I am awake and aware. So it would seem natural that I would understand how a highly-educated, ambitious Pakistani, living in the U.S., might gradually renounce his country of residence and go to the dark side. I do understand, I believe, why many in the middle east feel anger toward the U.S. Yet my reaction to the tone of this particular narrator was unexpected.

The story is a first-person narrative, in the form of half of a conversation. The narrator is Changez, Pakistani by birth, educated at Princeton and a former Wall Street analyst - who worked for a firm that "values" companies. In other words, a company that decides how much a company is worth and how much it could be worth with some changes.

Changez approaches an apparent American in a cafe in Lahore, Pakistan, and joins him at his table. Changez proceeds to tell his own story, whether his companion is interested or not. We learn very little of this American through the book, as it appears Changez is not all that interested in him.

Changez tells how he acquired a scholarship to Princeton and landed a highly-sought job in an esteemed firm in New York City. He is an excellent analyst, able to pull together the pieces that are needed to value a company, and he enjoys the full focus he is able to put on his work and the ease with which it is possible to evaluate how good he is. He is guided through various jobs by his mentor Jim, who recognizes a hunger and an outsideness in Changez that is familiar to him.

While in Princeton, Changez meets a young woman, Erica, and he is deeply attracted to her. She is beautiful and seems to need company yet stays some distance from others. She accepts Changez into her life on a limited basis and the friendship deepens.

While Changez is working his way through an analysis and seeing Erica occasionally, the attacks on Sept 11, 2001 happen. Changez himself experiences some suspicion by others because of his middle-eastern appearance but no overt physical attacks. Erica says maybe we should meet less often - but it is not clear if this is because of her own inner torments or because she does not want to be seen with someone of Changez's complexion. It appears rather to be the former.

We follow Changez through his conversation with this stranger, during which he orders tea, then dinner, then dessert, then picks up the bill. The hours pass slowly and occasionally there are hints that the American is trying to figure Changez out. More, though, the American is suspicious of a large waiter who seems too attentive.

As he tells it, Changez gradually awoke to his complicity with the ugliness of the American way of life - more particularly with the actions of the American government - and finally, in his way, rejected it. What I sensed from his actual words and from between the lines is a condescension toward his companion, and a willingness to generalize about all Americans (in spite of his continuing infatuation with Erica and his positive relationship with his mentor Jim), to equate the deeds of the state with the living flesh of one American.

As I read Changez's account of his work I was reminded of Confessions of an Economic Hit man. Both men were seduced by careers that involved the destruction of others' careers, but that are not directly connected to those they hurt. It is a certain type of person who is going to be attracted to such careers - a person who loves the perks and the compensations for his work, who likes to exhibit his own wealth to others, and who is capable of justifying his own actions because "if I don't do it someone else will".

There is no doubt this type person is just asking to be hated, and there is no doubt that it would be tempting for a middle-easterner to paint a large segment of the American population with the same brush, to connect (for it is inescapable; there is a connection) the Wall Street analyst with the self-satisfied powerful U.S. government.

There is certainly no doubt that as individuals, in our ignorance and pursuit of our own material wealth, we help solidify this image. So yes, I can see how Changez could develop a deep hatred of our country. And yet I am torn by the image he presents in this book. And I am suspicious that in a way the view is not at all sympathetic to Changez but instead an attempt to explain how it happens, how a promising young Pakistani might pledge to give his own life to make some mark against America. And in that sense, Changez too is a victim of generalization, of a kind of bigotry, by the author - himself a Pakistani graduate of Princeton.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

What the Dead Know, by Laura Lippman

It felt like cheating in a way to read this book for the notable book challenge. Although I read a lot I do find that "notable" books tend to take longer to read than the genre books I read just for pleasure. This book fit into both categories so it was like a special treat, a guilty pleasure.

Two young sisters, 11 and 15, disappear from the mall in Baltimore on Easter weekend 1975. After intense investigation the case goes cold. No leads. Thirty years later a woman has an accident near the home of the girls and from her hospital bed she confesses to being one of the sisters.

Enter detective Kevin Infante, social worker Kay Sullivan, eccentric lawyer Gloria Bustamante, and the girls' parents. Strangely, though, the woman does not come out and say where she has been all these years. In fact, she refuses to tell anyone the name she uses now.

The woman, who claims to be Heather Bethany, the younger sister, is not just uncooperative. She is cold, withdrawn, even manipulative. She uses the system, the lawyer, and especially the social worker, to avoid going to jail and to draw out her story. She dribbles it out bit by bit, none of it offering much hope of substantiation.

Her behavior and personality frustrate the investigators and make it difficult for the lawyer and social worker to help her. Her odd self-centeredness and refusal to reveal her present name make them all, to different degrees, suspicious. Is she really Heather? If so, why doesn't she tell all? If not, what does she hope to gain?

I was immediately taken by the circumstances and by this woman's unusual personality and story of her kidnapping. The lack of clear details made me want to scream at times. I was by turns a total believer and as suspicious as the detective. The personalities of the other characters are just as interesting, and I regret not being able to follow their lives further - perhaps in other novels?

I was disturbed by the type of police work that was done. I felt a more methodical approach at the very beginning would have unearthed more information than was found (information that was revealed later), and it seemed more could have been done to discover "Heather"'s identity by way of fingerprints, for example. My familiarity with police techniques from crime shows and murder mysteries has made me especially aware of the many leads that can logically be followed. It seems, though, that this novel is more psychological than crime.

An odd bit: throughout the book the word "police" is used as a term for an individual police officer or a synonym. For example, the detective introduces himself as "a police". I have never seen or heard this use of the word before. Is this something Baltimorean, perhaps?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett

What a surprising, lovely book! I was entranced from the very beginning and carried through on a wave of delight all the way to the end.

A powerful businessman from Japan, Mr. Hosokawa, is given a birthday party in a South American country. The country's leaders are hoping to persuade Mr. Hosokawa to open a factory there. To persuade him to come to the party they dangle the perfect gift: the presence of Roxanne Coss, a shining star in opera, considered by many to be the best soprano in the world. Mr. Hosakawa, an opera lover since he was a small child, cannot resist. Even though he knows he will never build a factory there.

The party, though, is overtaken by terrorists who seek to kidnap the country's president, who was expected to be there. But he wasn't. The terrorists, who had no backup plan, kidnap the entire party instead and hold them hostage in the mansion of the vice-president.

The group, which is winnowed down some in the first days, lives in the mansion for months. Over these months roles change and relationships develop. The terrorist group lets down its guard but continues to make demands.

We get to follow the intertwining of these lives, the gentle acceptance of one by the other, the blossoming of love in different parts, the celebration of small (and not so small) wonders. More, we get to experience music in a way most people have never experienced it. Although we don't hear a note we can understand how it transports both hostages and hostage-takers alike. I doubt I have ever read such a beautiful homage to the power of music.

The story is simply told, almost like a fable. It is structured elegantly and purely. A beautiful book.

Run, by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett has a distinctive style of writing and a distinctive approach to her stories, if my reading of just two is an indication.

Like Bel Campo, Run is written cleanly, at a slight distance, simply. The narrator does not get in the way yet there is a kind of warmth to it.

At the end of this book is a conversation with Patchett, in which she says she likes to explore what happens when strangers meet. Clearly she means when they meet in circumstances that demand that they develop some kind of relationship with each other, unusual circumstances.

The circumstances in this case are that two young men, accompanying their adoptive father to yet another political lecture, meet their real mother literally by accident. The accident sends one of the young men, Tip, along with his mother, Tennessee, to the hospital. Tip is easily patched up but returns home on crutches. Tennessee has suffered greater damage. Because Tennessee has to remain in the hospital Tip's family takes her young daughter Kenya home with them.

Kenya loves to run. She aches to run, cannot go a day without a run. So while waiting for her mother to come out of surgery she accompanies Tip to his lab and then to an indoor running track. This time together forms a bond between the two. Kenya's running also helps her manage her day to day challenges.

But the story is more than a simple bonding story. It explores Tip's two brothers - one not adopted - and his father, and it looks into how Tennessee happened to be on that same street at the same time. It asks us how much blood matters. And it is no fairy story, despite the gentle telling.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson

A long, complex story of war, deceit, and occasional honor in Vietnam and beyond. The tale features William "Skip" Sands, who joins the CIA and comes under the wing of his uncle, known far and wide simply as "the Colonel". Skip is assigned to work on a massive number of index cards, cataloging intelligence from "everywhere". This reasonably safe task leads to his involvement in the murder of a priest and to the periphery of a program dubbed "Tree of Smoke" by his uncle. The Colonel, with the help of an aide, wrote an article about the way intelligence is used - how raw intelligence is modified as it goes up the chain of command and modified further on its way down, in the form of directives, for political purposes. The article is considered traitorous and the Colonel becomes a target.

The story also involves two brothers, Bill and James, from Arizona, both of whom enlist and have very different experiences. The two both find, however, that truth is the first casualty in war, and that any soldier may be sacrificed for the sake of appearances, essentially for political reasons.

Skip, Bill, and James all encounter others in that dark jungle, Skip most importantly, perhaps, meeting and falling in love with the wife of the dead priest. The layers of intrigue, lies, and deceit change Skip from a young man wanting to do the right thing to a seasoned middle-aged man who believes he lost his core years ago.

It's a strange sort of morality play, and one that I did not fully comprehend on my way through it. I listened to the tale on my car CD player and occasionally was distracted from it and missed important connections. If I had instead read the book I could have gone back to check those passages. However, it is unlikely I would have read a book about Vietnam, a large book, any time soon. I think I would have put it down again and again and it would have been 2010 before I finished it.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Bridge of Sighs, by Richard Russo

The bridge of sighs is a bridge in Venice that prisoners cross to get to the prison. The name came from the suggestion that a prisoner would sigh when looking through the windows in the covered bridge, knowing it was their last look at the city before being taken to their cells.

Louis C. Lynch crossed his own bridge of sighs as a young boy, and from then on one might surmise that he was in a sense imprisoned. It was, for him, a comfortable prison, the town of Thomaston, where he was loved by his parents (and adored his father), where he knew the rules and tried to do the right thing. In his 60th year, Louis takes a look back by writing his story.

Louis's reminiscences are supplemented by third-person chapters on friends and family, chapters that suggest that they find him big in stature and in his heart, unwilling to take risks, with a tendency to look back nostalgically even on times that were far from wonderful. We sense a kind of frustration as well as deep affection for him, a sense that he will never really "get it".

Chief among the other characters are Bobby Marconi and his father, who were the Lynch's neighbors part of the time, Sarah Berg and her father, both of whom play large roles in Louis' life, and Gabriel Mock III and his father. The story is as much about fathers as it is about Louis.

Growing up in Thomaston, a small town in upstate New York that is provincial and blue-collar and economically stressed, Louis is a quiet, awkward child in the 1950s, who is a natural victim for rougher children. The first indication that he does not control his life comes when in kindergarten he is given the nickname "Lucy" (from Lou C.) and the name sticks, even when he changes schools. He finds protection in a neighbor, Bobby Marconi, who seems fearless and whose presence alone protects Lou from harm. Bobby and Lou form a friendship that is more on Lou's side than Bobby's, yet over the years Bobby develops an attraction to the Lynch family as a whole.

Lou resembles his father, an optimistic, kindhearted rather simple man, and he resents his mother, who seems too negative. Louis is unadventurous, happy to stay where he is and who he is but he admires the courage of Bobby and later Lou's girlfriend Sarah.

Louis's childhood was defined in large part by an incident when Louis was not under Bobby's protection and was forced across a railroad trestle and into a crate by other boys, threatened with being cut in half, and finally left for hours. The incident left Louis with an odd kind of disability - times when he would fade out, would become still and enter some other land, sometimes just for a few minutes, other times for hours.

I shared some of the feelings that Louis' mother and friends have about Louis. At times I wanted more. I wanted him to have epiphanies, to wake up from his dreamlike state and see the possibilities. I wanted him to love others with more of a passion and less of a simple acceptance and gratefulness. A protagonist of this sort can be a challenge. A large part of that challenge is our wish to see the character embraced wholeheartedly by others. Yet perhaps these challenges are the point of the book. There are many characters in the book who do not, in one way or another, "fit in". Louis stands for all of them. He senses the "otherness" in these others even while he may not consciously note it. He is susceptible to bigotry and prejudice just as they are.

When Louis is faced with discrimination, even against himself, he tends to walk around it when possible. He makes a case for his own differences in his narrative, however, that reveals a frustration that he is not seen for who he really is. But who is he really? Will he finally break out of his comfortable and comforting mold?