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. 

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward

I found this book, at times, difficult to read. But ultimately highly rewarding.

The story features fifteen-year-old Esch, living with her family in New Orleans, who discovers that she is pregnant. Her father, who drinks too much, doesn't have a lot to offer the family, other than the land held by his family over generations. Her older brother Randall is hoping for a career in basketball, hoping that he will be chosen to go to basketball camp this summer. He is a solid family member, helping with the younger members as needed. Junior is the youngest and mostly hangs around hitching rides on others' backs or riding a bicycle without a seat. The other primary character is Skeeter, a year younger than Esch, who has a dog, China.

Skeet enters China in dog fights. This is where the novel became difficult for me. I worried about the dog, who is pregnant at the beginning of the book, and I worried about the place dog fighting has in the story. I found a different kind of view of these dogs than the one we often hear about, the Michael Vick type story. We find that Skeet loves China, perhaps more than any other creature. This love is not inconsistent with the fighting that she does: pitbulls are known for their desire to please, which may be even stronger than that of other dogs. This is the real reason they make good fighters.

Of course I found it difficult, still, to think of these dogs facing horrible injuries and of the owners having few resources for helping them with their wounds. Skeet does an admirable job in this regard. But I could imagine there would be many instances when his skills would not be up to the task.

We follow this family through the days leading up to the day Hurricane Katrina hits. By the time it does its worst we know them. We understand why they did not leave their home. We understand why it would be so difficult to understand what a category 5 hurricane, particularly this one, would be so different from the hurricanes they have experienced in the past.

I found the book enlightening both in the way that it describes how a very poor southern family sees the world and in the details of living through Katrina. In all the coverage I read and saw of that hurricane I never before heard it described as it is here.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Bury Your Dead, by Louise Penny

Complexity! And lots of it!

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache (of the Surete) is pulled into a strange case while taking a leave of absence. An amateur archeologist, bent on discovering the grave site of the founder of Quebec, is found murdered in the basement of the Literary and Historical Library, an old and treasured library of books in English. The local police ask Gamache's informal assistance. Although he tries to stay out of it Gamache cannot help himself. His mind churns endlessly, searching for answers.

Meanwhile, he is haunted by memories of a recent confrontation with the kidnappers of a young subordinate. Bits of the final scene and the hours before it play in his mind like a tape, stopping and starting seemingly without his control. His broken memories gradually reveal to us the mistakes he made and the consequences of his actions, as well as those of others in command, until we finally get the full picture.

But that isn't all. A previous case has been kept alive in his mind as well. The partner of a convicted man remains unconvinced of the guilt of his friend. He writes a note to Gamache every day, asking "Why did he move the body?" When Gamache finally decides the case deserves another look, he sends Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir in to Quebec to investigate quietly, informally. Neither man is particularly convinced that they got the wrong guy, but Beauvoir is willing to do his best to find out.

These three cases run alternately through the book, to the setting of Quebec and particularly Old Quebec City. I did have to pay some attention to the description of this lovely city and to think about visiting myself some day. Or at least looking at it in Google Earth. For Ms. Penny seems determined to impart some of her own love of the city to the reader.

We learn, too, of the uneasy alliance between the French and English in Quebec, where the English are a decided minority. Although their fighting times are long over, memories seem to span generations.

An interesting introduction, for me, to Chief Inspector Gamache. I felt I got to know him a little in this long book, to know his heart, as well as that of his mentor and a few of his subordinates. The case of the dead archeologist turns out to take many different turns, while Gamache does a great deal of reading at the Lit and His and beyond. I am wondering how he behaves in more familiar stomping grounds now.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Red Door, by Charles Todd

A different kind of mystery, at least to me. Shortly after the end of WWI, Inspector Ian Rutledge is assigned two investigations: into a man who has been attacking people at night, and into the disappearance of a prominent citizen. He sets his own pace, however, not always showing up where he is expected to be.

The disappearance is of a former missionary, Walter Teller, followed his hospitalization for a mysterious illness. He apparently came out of the paralysis that siezed him and took off out of the hospital, sight-unseen. Teller and his brothers were "assigned" their vocations by their overbearing father, and while they complied with his wishes none of them found their careers satisfying. Some people suspect that Walter was reacting to a call from his church to return to the field, a return he clearly did not want to make.

But there is a wrinkle in the whole family story. A woman is found dead in another community, and it turns out her last name is Teller also, and that she married someone named Peter Teller, the same name as Walter's brother. Coincidence? After all, Peter already has a wife. IS this a relative or is it bigamy or what? This is the question Rutledge has to answer.

We get to know Rutledge in part through his work on these cases. We learn that he is suffering from "shell shock"and hears the voice of a former subordinate in his head. He has bad memories of how this person died and is careful not to let anyone know that he is talking to him. I found his investigative method a little odd. Perhaps I expected more of a standard procedure to be followed. Nonetheless, he followed his own instincts and got there in the end. It's as much a story about Rutledge as it is about the people he investigates. I am always on the side of stories that dig into characters like this.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Freedom - by Jonathan Franzen

The main character of this large book appears to be Patty Berglund. Her husband Walter figures prominently as well, as do several other characters. But Patty is the only one who gets to write portions of her own "autobiography", oddly in the third person.

Patty was an athletic young girl who got knocked off the track to a basketball career when she injured her knee. She changed her dreams, married Walter, had children, did her best to become a super housewife. She knew all along that she was not as nice as others thought she was, but there was much she did not know about herself.

Patty was originally attracted to Walter's best friend, Richard Katz. Katz was a musician, womanizer, who initially did not respond to Patty's hints. Patty, however, found herself increasingly attracted to Walter anyway. Walter was almost an anti-Richard. Thin, geeky, an environmentalist. Something in him, though, responded to something in Patty, the ex-athlete who was not much aware of the environment.

We follow Patty and Walter through many years, dipping into the lives of their children and parents as well. Until comes a time when something has gone out of their marriage and Patty is dissatisfied in general. She has become less and less fun to be around for just about everyone. In spite of which Richard is drawn to her.

What is "freedom" in this context? The freedom to do as we please? The freedom to be away from others, to be alone? We watch as Richard continues his self-destructive life, as free as can be. We see Patty and Walter's son free himself from the nest, then later engage make some questionable choices in his career, free from interference. Patty and Walter live their own lives, essentially free of each other.

Some reviewers have called this a novel of its time, and as I think of it I can agree. In a way, it sums up life today in the US for many in the upper middle class in a way that reminds me of John Cheever. There is a lot of humor but underlying that is real warmth. Something you don't see so much in Cheever. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Drift: by Rachel Maddow

Rachel brings us a clear, well-documented account of how our military has expanded and changed since WWII. She takes us from the entry into Vietnam, through Johnson's and Reagan's presidencies, and on through to Iraq, Pakistan, and beyond. She shows us how each step was taken that led to where we are now. And where are we?

A president can wage war now without bothering the rest of us. Fewer than 1% of US citizens are in the military, and as a rule we tend not to care about modern-day mercenaries: the employees of Brown, Kellogg, & Root, Halliburton, and Blackwater by whatever its current name is. At this time the private companies are putting more boots on the ground than is the US military. Because of sloppy or nonexistent oversight, these companies are costing us far more than just the cost overruns: they have wiped out our image in many companies, where they behave as ungovernable bullies - and in fact they are.

The privatization of war has consequences beyond even this, however. We can spend our way into and out of wars and keep going on about our business. We see no difference in our day to day lives. We don't pay for these wars in sacrifice or any other way. And therefore we have become numb to what they really are.

Years ago I remember reading an economics textbook. I remember little of it, but I remember this point: you can't have a successful economy manufacturing destruction. You have to build, not destroy. It is hard for any of us "regular folks" to comprehend the deficit we've created by waging these wars, and even harder to comprehend that payment will have to be made. In fact, it appears that collection has started. Our economy has been in the tank for a while now. It isn't just because of inflated housing.

I don't read many "political" books. I'm not a political junkie, although like many I hold strong views. This may be why I personally like Rachel so much. She does the work! And she explains it really really well. She rarely gets it wrong because she's passionate about facts. I came away from this book understanding how our constitution got to be irrelevant, how our standing army gradually and then exponentially increased, how we started farming out the work, even how we built up our nuclear arsenal, and even after the end of the cold war how we keep building it.

At the end Rachel offers us a checklist of what we need to do to get back on track. I believe that every member of congress and the president and his advisers all need to read this book and pay attention. I think it's possible that many of them are so caught up in day to day politics that they have lost the thread. It's here, it's clear, and we all need to pay attention.

I can't leave it there. Rachel brings to this tale all of her usual wit, which helps when we try to swallow.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan

An extraordinary book about the dust storms on the High Plains in the 1930s. This book takes us into the lives of several people who made up the "nesters" - farmers, along with cowboys, ranchers, doctors, teachers, and newspapermen. We follow the history of the plains from the early twenties, when land was free or cheap and hopes were high, when government policy fed the ambitions of the settlers, on into the 1930s and the worst of the storms.

It is clear from our present perspective that the horrors of the "dust bowl" were man-made. It took a few years and some gutsy thinking people to get that message out during the worst of it and to start the process that would lead to some recovery. Not that these plains have ever fully recovered.

Of particular interest are the extraordinary details. What the storms did to people, animals, buildings, and what happened on the rare occasions when it actually rained. While in the air (which was most of the time) the dust created such static electricity that people were afraid to touch each other. The touch could knock them across a room. The electricity shorted out engines and started fires. The dust destroyed just about everything it touched, killing the natural animal and plant population while bringing in insects that thrived on what was left. Millions of acres of land were left sterile, while the swarms of dust moved into the cities, over other parts of the country, and into the ocean. The storms even reached New York City and Washington, D.C. on occasion.

How the government responded is another fascinating tale, featuring a president who couldn't think of anything to do - Hoover - followed by one who did everything possible - Roosevelt. It's possible that the biggest hero of the time was the person who took on a new governmental position under Roosevelt, Hugh Bennett, and came up with ways to hold the soil down. He didn't stop there, of course. He took his mission to the loners who made up the plains settlers and convinced them that they had to work together to fight this thing.

The story is devastating and often heart-breaking. And so very readable.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Started Early, Took My Dog - by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson's novels just delight me. I get great pleasure reading them. There are books that I like but these I love.

As in the others, this novel features a range of characters, some central and some peripheral. Jackson Brodie is again featured, former detective now supposedly retired. He falls for one more case: to find out who gave birth to a woman, Hope McMaster, a woman who now lives in New Zealand but who was born in England. Jackson figures it shouldn't be that hard, considering he's already traveling. Wandering, really, not settling anywhere. Might as well look into the case while he's on the road.

Another major character is Tracy Waterhouse, former police detective, present head of security for a retail store. Tracy is an amply-built woman who has made her job her life, for the most part. She is not married, has no children. When she spots a familiar woman on the street, pulling a small child, she can guess what will happen to that child when she gets home. She confronts the woman, a drug addict Tracy had arrested when she was with the police. On the spur of the moment she does something highly unusual and unexpected, which changes the course of her life.

When Jackson starts to hunt down birth and adoption records he runs into a blank wall. The presumed birth parents do not appear to exist. So who really did give birth to Hope?

There are other minor characters whose lives are intertwined with these and whose actions surprise and delight at times. It's like a full, satisfying meal that left me feeling just right. 

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Secret River, by Kate Grenville

Curious story. A kind of historical fiction that I can live with.

In 1806 William Thornhill, illiterate waterman, is convicted of theft and sentenced to hang. By paying for letters pleading his case to be sent to authorities, he manages to get his sentence commuted. He is sent to New South Wales (now Australia), along with his wife and small children, to live out a life sentence there.

The system in New South Wales allows Thornhill to work his way out of his life sentence. He is still "branded" as a former convict but is able to be free on the continent. Working on the water again, he discovers a piece of land that is fairly remote from any kind of civilization, and he covets that land. In time he moves his family there and they take on the task of creating a home and growing food, while he continues to run his boat.

Throughout this time he encounters "savages". There is a conflict, because they were there first, although they don't tend to have the same concept of property ownership. Thornhill and eventually his convict workers push against the land, forcing it into submission. He even makes a kind of peace with the savages, an uneasy one.

His wife Sal is strong and capable but not in love with this land. Thornhill is deeply in love with his wife and struggles with his two loves: the land and Sal. Eventually the savage situation comes to a head, an ugly and violent one. Throughout the book the tension is almost unbearable. In a way the ultimate "resolution" was almost a relief.

I read The Fatal Shore years ago. It impressed me with its details of convict life in early Australia and the settling of the continent at the expense of the aborigines. I remember life for the convicts being harder than indicated in this book, but there were different settlements. I have no reason to doubt the details in this book, written by an Australian writer and praised by fellow Australians. This fiction story fills out the story I read so long ago.