Thursday, December 15, 2011

Quentins, by Maeve Binchy

I avoided Maeve Binchy's work for years because I had the impression that it is heart-warming fiction with happy endings and simple stories. And so it is, judging by this book. But I have to admit I liked it more than I expected.

Binchy seems related, to an extent, to her Scottish cousin (not literal cousin) Alexander McCall Smith. Both celebrate the community developed by persons together in a town, together in a pub or restaurant, or just together in a neighborhood. Relationships develop among people who meet up in various ways, and always who live in the same city. In the case of McCall Smith, the city is Edinburgh (except for the African stories, of course). For Binchy, it is Dublin. At least in this book.

The individual stories of many persons are told in relation to a restaurant called Quentins, including the story of Quentin himself. Careers are set in motion, people get married, others meet or have life-changing experiences. A common thread is the story of Ella, an intelligent but naive young woman who falls for a married financier who later disappears, apparently to Spain, apparently to escape prosecution. Her own story lies on the periphery of the restaurant, which she and her lover visited often. The other stories get told as possible parts of a film, a documentary, that Ella has agreed to assist in making, about how the restaurant represents the positive changes in Dublin over several years.

It was obvious from the start that everything would work out in the end, with life lessons learned, and some people a bit wiser while others are justly made to pay for their crimes. The stories are simply told and generally fun to read, but at times I tired of them. So many characters, so many little incidents, not all of them all that interesting. Good light reading for that airplane trip or time spent in the hospital.

Leaving Home, by Anita Brookner

A young woman leaves home and grows up. I think one might summarize the book this way, but it really isn't a "coming of age" book in the usual sense.

Emma Roberts, 26, heads from her home in England to France to complete her dissertation on formal gardens. Living in small tight quarters, she works daily in the library, lives almost monastically. At the library, though, she meets Francoise, a young French woman whose life is almost the opposite of Emma's. Emma listens to her friend's tales of one-night stands and her stories of her weekends at home with her mother. After some time, Francoise invites Emma to join her at her home one weekend and Emma accepts.

The house is large and stately, a bit run-down but still beautiful. Emma is entranced by it. She is also deeply affected by her encounters with Francoise's mother, who, while reserved and hardly friendly, seems to like her.

In the months to come Emma visits the house a few more times, and also visits her own mother back in England. She also starts to take up a small friendship with a young man, Michael, who lives in the same hotel. The two go on quiet walks and occasionally have coffee. They share a desire for distance, a companionable distance. Emma is happy with the lack of expectations of her.

The student life in France is abruptly interrupted when Emma receives bad news about her mother, and relationships slip a little. She reluctantly accepts invitations to visit Francoise's house again, and ultimately learns more about her friend than perhaps she wants.

There is growing up going on here, but it's clear that in some ways Emma has been grown for a while. She is so introspective that she almost lives doubly - in real life and in her mind. The book is small but the writing is "literary" - "lyrical". Simple actions are written in expansive prose that sometimes almost obscures what actually happened. At times I found the style irritating. As a rule, I like writing to be more straightforward, direct.

IT's a curious book. I didn't love Emma. Or her friends, particularly. Yet I found it interesting enough and ultimately it left me thinking, which is a good thing. 

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Ministry of Special Cases

A Jewish family in Argentina during the Dirty War suffers an unimaginable loss. Kaddish and Lillian and their son Pato are managing to get by with Lillian's work and with Kaddish's occasional work when the police arrest Pato and take him away. Kaddish's work consists of destroying family names on tombstones in the disreputable part of the Jewish cemetery, so that persons with those names can claim to come from a better class of citizens. Kaddish, "son of a whore" himself, has long accepted the division of the cemetery so taking money to erase the past is not a moral issue for him.

There is nothing straightforward about Pato's disappearance. No police station will claim him. Nobody will file a report on his disappearance. Neighbors look blank when Kaddish and Lillian ask if they saw what happened. It is as if Pato never existed. This because everyone knows that anyone who aids a family that has been somehow marked by the present regime will be marked themselves. People cannot afford to help, for by doing so they may lose their lives.

Lillian and Kaddish disagree on how to help their son. They try some things together and other things apart. Finally Kaddish comes to believe Pato is dead while Lillian believes it is against their religion to believe so until they have seen his body. This difference in belief tears them apart.

The story is written with wry humor in spite of the dark subject matter. The Ministry of Special Cases, for example, is a classic bureaucracy and is justly skewered. Kaddish is drawn with a warm sympathy for his failings.

A revealing portrait of Argentina's Dirty War from the inside.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, by Tom Franklin

 The title refers to a ditty used to teach Southern children how to spell Mississippi: M - I - crooked letter, crooked letter - I - crooked letter, crooked letter...

It's a story that had to happen in Mississippi or a similar southern state.

Two boys, growing up in the 70s, one black, one white, become friends. But secret friends, because such a friendship was not acceptable then. The two meet under curious circumstances and ultimately find they are connected by more than geography.

Larry Ott, the white boy, is a quiet bookish boy who is thrilled when the neighbor girl asks if he wants to take her to a drive-in. The date does not go as planned and the next day the town is out looking for the girl. Suspicion centers on Larry because he was the last one to see her. For years he carries around this suspicion and his future is changed forever.

Meanwhile, a thoughtless comment by Larry pushes his friend Silas away. The two grow up and get on with their lives, separately. Until another incident pushes the two together and at least some of the mystery of years before is solved.

It's a beautifully-written story that goes back and forth from the past to the present, letting the tension build slowly and the characters develop. To me it feels very real and very sad.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Fearless, by Rafael Yglesias

 I never know, when I buy a book by an author I have not heard of, whether it will be just okay or something more. Every now and then I get excited. That's the case here. I loved this book and I will be looking for more by this author.

Max, an architect, is in a plane crash that kills his partner Jeff. In the minutes before the crash he moved from his seat to be with a young boy who is traveling alone, who is facing death alone. After the crash he leads this boy, Byron, and carries a baby out of the plane, earning him exaggerated kudos as a hero. Formerly fearful of flying, of eating strawberries, of many things, he suddenly finds he has no fear. He believes he has already faced death and is now immune. More than that, he is not afraid of saying the truth and in fact can't seem to help himself even when it hurts himself or others.

Meanwhile, Carla, also on that flight, loses her baby and finds herself fighting her guilt, lashing out and retreating into herself. Eventually she can't face even going outside. How do you make sense of such random deaths? She tries, through her religion.

Max alienates some and scares others as he becomes this other Max. He decides that the man he was before the crash was a fiction and the world had better get used to this new one. He fights with his wife and ignores Byron, who has taken to visiting him. He shuts down his business. He takes up with a less-than-stellar attorney. He does not lose his humanity or his compassion, however.

Ultimately it is this compassion that brings Max to meet the housebound Carla, where he proceeds to work what appear to be miracles. In most interesting ways the two lead each other out of the new world they have created.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Preston Falls, by David Gates

Yet another writer from upstate New York. Like Joyce Carol Oates and Richard Russo, Gates takes us to a workingman's world - but not quite.

Doug Willis is somehow dissatisfied with his life. He mocks his work and makes unfunny, often bitter remarks to his wife, and he spends more time away from home than he does there, giving his children a sense that he hardly lives there. Finally he reaches a point when he just wants to be away for a while to think things through. He uses the excuse of fixing up the cabin he bought in Preston Falls, four hours away from home near New York City, and takes a leave of absence.

But that isn't all. Willis reimagines himself as some sort of down-to-earth blue collar worker, communing with the truck. And he does get himself a truck to match.

And thus the novel begins with Willis in his truck with the dog, and his wife and two children in the Cherokee, following, driving to the cabin. It is a holiday weekend but the children have to be back at school the following Tuesday, and Doug's wife Jean has to be back at work. Doug, however, has two months to work through whatever is going on inside him.

Things don't quite go as planned. After Jean and the kids leave, a day early, Doug decides to follow them, join them at a campground between Preston Falls and their home down south. He gets into an altercation with the park ranger and before he knows it he has been arrested. This clever move is compounded by his follow-up relationship with the lawyer who freed him. Complication follows complication.

The story is about Doug and Jean. They cannot seem to speak to each other without biting sarcasm or defensiveness. Every comment either makes is received in the worst possible context. At times I just wanted to slap the both of them, tell them to grow up and learn to listen.

The story is even more just about Doug. His attempts to figure himself out, to justify his existence. His every move is punctuated by his efforts to be somebody else, and those efforts don't succeed particularly well. Because he can't seem to figure out what he stands for, he is "neither fish nor fowl". He can't seem to take a stand. He hardly knows his own mind. Is this because he is overthinking everything? Possibly. But more likely he just can't get there, can't figure it out.

That's the bare bones. The writing is often so very funny, so real I could hardly stand it. Particularly when we peek in on a scene or two featuring Jean, I wondered how could this man Gates understand women as well as he does? His command of Willis is greater, is richer, of course.

A rich, rewarding, funny and sad story.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro

Another set of terrific short stories by this remarkable Canadian writer. The title story is actually a fictionalized version of a real life, and it sits at the very end of this volume. The rest are intimate glimpses into important episodes of several lives.

So what does it mean - Too Much Happiness? It may be that there is no such thing. Maybe that just when we think all our wishes have been granted - they aren't. Or perhaps the stories are about unexpected things in a life. But that's too simplistic to describe these stories.

They are pieces of lives of ordinary people. Real pieces, unexpected journeys and unexpected actions. People who find parts in themselves that may have been lost. People who simply lose. People who accept, then don't.

All of the stories held my attention, as each character made its way into me, became some sort of friend or acquaintance. And their stories are vivid and real. 

Friday, March 4, 2011

Elizabeth Costello, by J.M. Coetzee

This is an unusual book. I don't know what to make of it, and I feel like I am not fully qualified to read it, frankly.

The main character, Elizabeth Costello, is an elderly - but not really old - writer, who finds herself invited to various functions where she delivers rather obscure speeches. Much of the import of the book lies in these speeches, or in conversations at dinner. In a sense that feels odd, forced, yet not really, because she is so well-drawn. I cared about her even when I could not entirely follow her reasoning.

If I had read the list of chapters ahead of time I wonder if I would have started the book. They are called "Lessons".

Lesson 1: Realism
Lesson 2: The novel in Africa
Lesson 3: The lives of animals...

And so on. I am glad that I did not read this and get put off, though, for this is a beautifully written book. And the main theme really is about caring. About empathy, about giving a damn. I am always up for discourse on this subject.

Where I fall short is in the classics, particularly the Greek and Roman classics. I have never read them. So when the various characters discuss them I can only take them at their word, or try to make a whole from the parts. I feel a bit undereducated. Not unusual, I suspect, for an American from a middle-class family.

We meet Elizabeth as she travels to Pennsylvania to receive an honorary award from a university there. She meets her son there, because he lives nearby, and he feels obligated to accompany her and to watch her speak. Wherever she goes she has a tendency to ruffle feathers, not because she is a glutton for controversy but simply because she speaks what she feels and she tries to explain.

Thus she discusses "realism" - or maybe the inability to determine what is real and what is not. Or maybe her regret that she can no longer be sure what a writer really means. There is a core there, a thought worked out, and I can't say that I fully understand it. In this I am joined by the fictional audience, which clapped somewhat hesitantly.

But then we move on to other subjects. Elizabeth dissects the contention by an African writer that African writing is all about listening, community, being a part of the story, rather than offering a story to be read alone. Rather furiously she takes apart the theory and throws it into the dust bin. Then she moves on to what is my favorite subject: animals.

In the next two chapters she talks of how animals are treated in factory farms today, how no animal is safe from human appetites, and she dares to make the comparison with the Holocaust, saying that there is a holocaust every day for farm animals. Through the rest of the book these words are thrown back at her, but she does not retract them. Good for her, I say. The essence of her discussion here, I think, comes when she is pressed for what she wants or believes and she says she is at sea here, that she knows so many good and kind people and she does not understand why she herself is unable to forget or accept the horrors that happen to animals while others can. She simply does not understand. She does not set herself up as better than others, just as somebody trying to understand.

Her empathy for others permeates the rest of the book as well. She travels on a cruise ship, where she is one of the "entertainers", giving a talk and a short course on the novel. She travels to Africa to be with her sister when her sister receives an honor for what she has done in an African hospital, as a nun. She is invited to other illustrious events, in large part, she knows, because her name has become synonymous with controversy. She does not mean this to be so. She is only letting others know how she thinks, and she does think.

It's a thoughtful book, full of ideas that catch at the mind. It isn't too hard to see why the author would have won the Nobel prize in literature. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Bearing the Body, by Ehud Havazelet

I was born in 1946, in the U.S. My family is not Jewish. I grew up, though, with the images from World War II, particularly the horrors of concentration camps. I have read books and magazines and seen films about this subject and in my dreams I often see the crowded trains and I think about how they ate, how they defecated, what they were thinking. I see in my mind the lines of the newly-arrived prisoners, being sorted; I see the piles of clothing of those sent to the "showers", the shoes, the jewels. I see the families separated, those surviving wondering if they will ever see the others again.

So even though I had no personal connection to these horrors they still live in my heart. Yet it was only after I was well into this book that I started to see the world perhaps as Sol sees it, or as Nathan sees it.

Sol and Nathan are the two lead characters. Sol is elderly, former owner of a shoe factory, and Nathan is his younger son, in his forties, pursuing at last a medical career. Sol's wife is dead. Sol was young when he was sent to the camps, and he managed to be sent to a barracks with his brother Chaim. He heard of others in his family from time to time but never saw any of them again.

Sol and his wife moved to New York after being liberated from the concentration camp, and their greatest wish was that their children never really know what they went through. So this dark ugly past was never discussed, yet the two boys had to feel it, wonder about it.

The story is about the death of Nathan's older brother Daniel, and Nathan's efforts to find out what happened. But the real story is about Nathan's tenuous hold on his own life, and his relationship with his increasingly bitter father. Intertwined through the story is always the background: what Sol lived through and could never forget.

Initially I was a little confused, in the first several pages, trying to sort out who was who and what was going on. I soon caught on, though, and was stuck instead in a kind of molasses-like sludge of misunderstandings, memories, wrong moves, recriminations, regrets. I am not a fan of "happy books", although at times I enjoy them. I love a book full of psychological issues, frankly, often including unhappy people searching, or flawed characters committing thoughtless acts. Yet this one really did bog me down at times. I became irritated at Sol and Nathan both, wondering when they were going to get past their own delusions and start seeing clearly. I kept reading though, and there were moments that jumped out at me, that told me in essence why I kept reading and what the book was about.  

Monday, February 7, 2011

His Illegal Self, by Peter Carey

Intense is how I would describe Peter Carey's writing, from the books of his I have read. It certainly describes this one.

Told alternately from the point of view of the boy Che and from the caretaker Anna, this story is set in the 1970s, occasionally harking back to the 1960s for background. Anna is about to begin a career as a professor at Vassar when she is called back to a former life by an accidental connection. A radical member of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), she was always malleable and in thrall to the leaders of that movement. Now she is older and stronger yet the pull is still there and is why she agrees to pick up the seven-year-old boy for a visit with his outlaw mother.

The boy is not told much. He has to go on instinct and expectation. When he first sees Anna step out of the elevator he is sure she is his mother. His mother, whom he last saw at age two. He has managed to build an imaginative world about his parents, aided by a babysitter who reads the papers and has radical ideas himself. So he is happy to say good bye to his grandmother and take off with this hippie-like woman.

Through a series of planned and unplanned events, Anna and Che find themselves sought by the law, and Anna makes decisions she later regrets. The two of them ultimately find themselves in the deep outback of Australia, about as remote from the New York world they knew as possible. And initially this is just fine with Anna.

Che - also known as Jay - is not thrilled to be dragged along to live an "alternative" lifestyle. He just wants to stay in a motel now and then. The two get to know different members of the commune they somewhat accidentally enter and try to get by. It isn't an easy or happy existence, although it sometimes has its rewards.

Each day and each act was, for me, intense. I never knew what was coming or if all would come out all right for any of the people involved. This is one thing I have learned about Carey - you really don't know how it will end. There were moments that made my stomach hurt.

I was drawn to it all, though, almost like to an accident but more personally caught up. I became attached to these characters, especially to the little boy. There are so many moments that felt real to me, accurate and deep. It isn't easy to portray the thoughts of a young boy when you are a middle-aged man, but somehow Carey seems to do it beautifully and believably. 

I surprised myself by how much I liked the ending. 

This is not a book for everyone. If you want light and easy, go somewhere else. If you want more this may be for you. I think it will stick with me for a long time. 

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Good Thief, by Hannah Tinti

Several reviewers refer to this tale as "Dickensian" and I have to agree. It stars a young boy, Ren, an orphan who is adopted by a con man, Benjamin, because Ren is missing one hand. Benjamin makes up any number of stories about the missing hand, and uses the sympathy of others to take their money. He soon learns that Ren has a way with stealing in any case, and is glad he doesn't have to teach him that particular skill.

So we start to think of Oliver Twist and others. This story, though, is set in New England. Not that it matters much, as that part of the country is older and steeped in buried history, much like its namesake.

The tale - and I feel "tale" is the right word - takes on gigantic dimensions in the adventure department, yet while I laughed at the absurdity of some of the characters I was willing to buy them. I also found the dialogue believable, authentic, unlike the mannered dialogue I have encountered in other "period" novels. Normally I walk away from fantastic fairy tales and period stories but this one grabbed me, from the grave-digging to the giant to the yelling landlady.  

Friday, January 21, 2011

An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination, by Elizabeth McCracken

A writer of fiction, Elizabeth McCracken found herself in France in an old house in the country, pregnant. She and her husband like to visit different places when not required to be home. Thus the French country. The two of them arranged for a midwife and had access to a hospital about 40 minutes away. All checkups went well, until the last one, when there appeared to be something amiss.

The baby was stillborn.

This book is the story of that baby, the months before and after, the way Elizabeth and her husband coped with the loss. It is written simply and freely, from the heart. Yet, although she says she did very little editing, she seemed to have a sense of how to tell the story. We know from the start that the baby dies, but we know no more about it until well into the story.

What we learn goes beyond the grief. We learn how a tragedy can be associated with a place to such an extent that the place is forever ruined. We learn that it is important to say something to the grieving parents, not to ignore the grief.

We learned, in this case, that McCracken does not want to forget the happy days, months, before the birth, even though she never wants to see those places again. It's important to remember.

McCracken wrote the book, she says, so that she does not have to keep telling the story, so that she does not have to answer the question, "Is this your first child?" It hurts to keep explaining, "No, the first was stillborn". Better that acquaintances already know.

A simply-written memoir that manages to sidestep the maudlin yet lets us in on the fullness of a mother's pain. 

Rape: A Love Story, by Joyce Carol Oates

At times I like the spare, abrupt prose Oates sometimes uses. At other times I feel it distances me from the subjects. I had difficulty this time, not being able to connect closely to the rape victim, her daughter, or their unusual "benefactor". Nevertheless, I was compelled to keep reading.

This is a story of horrific violence, not only the rape itself but so far beyond. And not just violence that's physical, but perhaps the worst kind, the emotional kind, the type that separates people from a community that we'd hope would support them. The victim is from "the other side of the tracks", familiar ground for Oates, who grew up herself in poverty. She knows the ground well and at times forces us to look at our prejudices, as she does here. For this we can be grateful to this prolific and often deeply moving writer.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Whitewash, by Joseph Keon

In this book-length indictment of the use of cow’s milk for human consumption, Keon leaves no stone unturned. Exhaustively, he offers us information on why cow’s milk is not good for humans, either children or adults; on contamination of milk products; on how the calcium in milk does not do a body good, in fact it weakens bones; on the association of dairy products with a myriad of human diseases; on the environmental effects of dairy farming (and a brief synopsis of the agonies of being a milk cow); and finally, on how to give up dairy products and lead a healthier life.
There is much good here, and I recommend having this book on your reference shelf. However, be careful with how you use the information. Keon is generally careful about making connections between dairy consumption and human health, for example, by saying milk “may” cause this or that disease or have an effect on it, when he is not certain that studies have made the connection conclusive.  At times, though, the sources he cites are not credible. For example, he makes connections between dairy consumption, vaccines, and autism, citing various studies by Andrew Wakefield that have since been discredited. He should have known of this discrediting and either found other, better sources (I am not aware there are any) or mentioned the cloud hanging over Dr. Wakefield. 
He also sometimes uses second- or third-hand information. For example, a reference to a Consumer Reports statement comes from an article in a newspaper rather than directly from Consumer Reports.  
To his credit, most sources are direct. Also to his credit, Keon does an admirable job describing the mechanisms by which our bodies handle different food products or contaminants. To me the descriptions sounded believable. However, Keon is not a doctor or scientist. He is a “wellness expert, nutrition and fitness expert”. Frankly, these are not titles that inspire confidence in me. There are no governmental standards for what a nutritionist or fitness expert must learn, and the various “wellness experts” around town are all self-described. This does not mean that a non-professional cannot write a good book about milk. He’s clearly knowledgable and understands a great deal about the human body, but the few issues raised above suggest to me that he would have done well to coordinate the writing of this book with a medical doctor or appropriate scientist. 
The book contains a wealth of supplementary information, from the cited sources to a separate “recommended reading” section. It therefore rates a place on any health-conscious person’s reference shelf.