This blog is dedicated to the amazing staff at the New Canaan Public Library in New Canaan, Connecticut.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny, 2011, * * * * *

This is the 7th novel in the Armande Gamache mystery series. In this book, Clara Morrow, now aged 50, is far beyond the age when most artists are discovered.  Yet, on the evening that the novel opens, she is about to enter the prestigious Musee d'Art Contemporain on Montreal for a gala solo show of her work.  Art experts and critics from the local scene and from as far away as New York, Paris and London are at the vernissage and Clara's party afterwards at her home in Three Pines, the lovely village near Montreal that is so small it does not appear on any map. However, the celebratory mood of the Three Pines party does not last,  as early the next morning there is a discovery of a murdered woman's body Clara's garden. Three Pines may seem like a picture perfect postcard-of-a-place but it is a microcosm for the world outside.  Usually evil arrives in town by traveling the road from the outside, but not always. The body is identified as Lillian Dyson, Clara's childhood friend who cruelly betrayed her while they were in art college. Clara claims that she has not seen or heard from her in over 20 years and there is a wide field of suspects.  In addition, Clara's new-found success and Lillian's murder bring to a boil the problems of envy and lack of understanding that have plagued her marriage with Peter for several years.  Louise Penny's mysteries are not about forensics, timetables, alibis or violent action --they are about the human heart and spirit; about envy, resentment and fear eating away at people, threatening friendships, marriages, partnership and other lives.  They are also about love, forgiveness, and redemption offering hope for change and a forging new stronger bonds.  Ms. Penny is a master of characterization; a genius at creating a world that we enter into and fully live in, and want to return to.   A Trick of the Light  exposes the soul-destroying anger, disappointments and rancor that can eat a person up from within and specifically examines the mind-set of alcoholics, who are capable of doing extensive damage before they are ready to admit that they need help. As a murder mystery, there is little suspense and most readers will not be shocked when Gamache unmasks the culprit. Penny is a stand-out for her eloquent use of language, analysis of people's psychological foibles, and her beautiful and sometimes humorous description of life in a place so tiny that everyone is intimately acquainted with everyone else. Penny also explores what makes art memorable and what it is like to struggle creatively.  A Trick of the Light is both fascinating and, at times, poetic. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, 2011, * * *

Amor Towles stylish, elegant and deliberately anachronistic debut novel transports you back to Manhattan in 1938, just before the sharp lines between social stratification were smudged by the leveling influences of World War II and the G.I. Bill.  Rules of Civility takes its title from young George Washington's Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, all 110 of which appear in the novel's appendix. Like the literary touchstones he evokes -- F. Scott Fitzgerald,  Edith Wharton and Louis Auchincloss -- Towles writes with grace and verve about the mores and manners of a society on the cusp of radical change. Towles uses the somewhat contrived device of a long flashback to tel his story, but it works.  His starting point is the 1966 opening of Walker Evans' "Many Are Called" show at the Museum of Modern Art, attended by his then middle-aged urbane narrator and her husband. Among the photographs -- in which Evans captured New Yorkers on the subway with a hidden camera in the late 1930s --the narrator recognizes two shots taken a year apart, of a man she used to know named Tinker Grey.  See these photographs send her back to reminiscences of the year she met Grey, a turning point in her life. Towles novel follows three main characters, Tinker Grey, Katey Content and Eve Ross and is about the randomness of chance and how most of us "have a few brief periods when we are offered a handful of discrete options" which will determine the course of the resty of ouir lives . It is also about maintaining integrity and the capacity for wonder in the face of insidious monetary sway.Filled with snappy dialogue, sharp observations and an array of terrifically drawn characters with names like Dicky Vanderwhite, Mason Tate and Wallce Wolcott, Rules of Civility  takes the readyer to Gatsbyesque parties on Long Island estates, jazz dives, lushly appointed Conde Nast offices, deluxe suites at The Plaza, posh restaurants and flop houses.  The book reinforces the kind of improbable-but-true serendipity that plots the lives of people in their 20s - in whatever epoch - before they kow the weight that decisions made in a moment might have.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

No Biking in the House Without a Helmet by Melissa Fay Greene, 2011, * * * * *

In 1991, age age 4,  and with four children of her own, author Melissa Fay Greene ("Praying for Sheetrock,", "The Temple Bombing," "There Is No Me Without You," was struck by "a sudden onset of longing and nostalgia" for another baby. When her next pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, she and her husband, Don Samuel, an Atlanta criminal defense attorney, decided to adopt. No Biking in the House Without a Helmet is her new book about adopting a boy from an orphanage in Bulgaria (Jesse), and then a daughter and three sons from HIV/AIDS ravaged Ethiopia (Helen, Fisseha, and brothers Daniel and Yousef), absorbing each into their upper middle class Jewish Atlanta home. Post-adoption life proved to be challenging at best  with language barriers, bed-wetting, raging tantrums, separation anxieties, and more. Greene sank into "post adoption depression syndrome" (something she'd never even heard of) convinced that she had "wrecked my dearest treasure, my family."  Miraculously Greene recovers, her family repairs, and bonds thrive.  The sprawling family journey is not without its pitfalls.  The children fight - even come to blows - give each other the silent treatment, lie on occasions, break rules, and figure out how to download porn on their cellphones.  The teenage boys also bypass Net Nanny and then get caught charging up the cable bill with XXX-rated movies.  Ready with a band-aid box in hand, Greene is a culturally sensitive, boldly human antidote to the Tiger Mother. As too many of today's parents are caught in the blinding fog of over-achievement  "No Biking in the House Without a Helmet" is filled with water balloons, newborn gerbils, dead chickens, spicy foods, baseball stats, frequent flyer miles, endless extended family and an unlimited supply of laughter and love.  It is a sprawling, imperfect, courageous and joyful account of the adoption process, warts and all -- the heart wrenching trips to orphanages, frustrating delays,  living parents, as well as the inevitable homesickness and culture clashes and sometimes rocky emotional terrain. Greene captures the family's triumphant shared delight in one another's differences.

In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson, 2011, * * * *

Erik Larsen has written a compelling book which takes its ominous title from Berlin's Central Park, the Tiergarten, which means "animal garden" and hearkens back to the days when it served as a royal hunting preserve.  In this nonfiction saga, the verdant terrain plays a significant yet totally different role.  It serves as a focal point for the horrifying rise of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich and is the site of a dazzling social life, furtive trysts, plots, meetings, and machinations that took place within its secluded and leafy confines and in the lavish homes and embassies scattered along its perimeter.  The story deals with a naive American family, William Dodd, a low-key history professor from the University of Chicago who becomes the first U.S. ambassador to Nazi Germany in 1933, and his flamboyant and sexually charged daughter, Martha, who are thrust into the dangerous and strangely glamorous world of the "New Germany" and succumb to its eerie charm.  Martha, a would-be journalist is fleeing an unhappy marriage and becomes totally smitten by the provocative allure of the volatile atmosphere, flagrantly indulging in numerous affairs with members of the diplomatic corps, the SS and the Gestapo and several high-profile American reporters and authors - Thornton Wilder and Carl Sandburg among them.  She, like many others, wore blinkers as to what Hermann Goering, Heinrick Himmler, Hitler and their ilk were really up to, and though they realized it was a scary time, they either downplayed, ignored or simply accepted the brutality and dictates of the increasingly repressive regime and partied on. Dodd's assignment from President Roosevelt was to maintain the status quo in U.S. relations with Germany in order to placate a growing group of isolationists at home and an elite cadre in the U.S. State Department who were in denial over Jewish persecution  and the threat of a looming war.  Many of these men were anti-Semitic and pro-German. Culling through Russian and German archives, letters, diaries, memoirs, cables, newspapers, and interviews, Mr. Larson re-creates the decadence and peril of the period and details and diplomatic minefield facing the inexperienced, exasperated ambassador.  Even Maratha eventually saw behind the shiny black uniforms, swastikas and Mercedes.  She became a communist and Russian spy and ended up living alone in Prague for several years until her death in 1990 at 82.  What is astonishing is how passive and clueless everyone seemed to be, assuming that Hitler and his entourage were childish puppets. This is a cautionary tale not to be missed.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton, 2011, * * * * *

A lusty, rollicking, engaging-from-page-one memoir by the chef/owner of Prune restaurant in New York's East Village.  Gabrielle Hamilton opened her restaurant without any prior experience as a chef but the life experiences she did have before that bold move, told here in honest detail, obviously made up for any deficiencies and provide material for an electric story. The youngest of five siblings born to a French mother who cooked 'tails, claws, and marrow filled bones' in a good skirt, high heels, and apron, and an artist father who made the sets for the Ringling Brothers circus, Hamilton spent her early years in a vast old house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.  During Hamilton's teenage years her parents were often gone or distracted and following their divorce she lied about her age to get dishwashing and waitressing work.  She is often drawn, or pulled, to the world of food and hospitality even when she struggles against it -- a battle suggested by the book's subtitle "The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef. " Through feeding people Hamilton exerts contgrol over a life rendered chotic and undependable when her parents split -- she takes care of others in the way her parents didn't take care of her.  This is clearest in her description of opening Prune, which illuminates how much more than menu planning goes into the creation of a restaurant. Ms. Hamilton nimbly cranks up her own literary time machine to transport us back to the hippie-ish world of rural Pennsylvania in the 1970s and New York city at the height of the coke-and-urban-cowboy era of the '80s.  She conveys what it was like to be a rebellious delinquent in the making and to be young and poor in Manhattan surviving on stolen ketchup packets from McDonalds. She writes with spirited glimpses into the heart, mind and sweaty labor of a chef and the moment to moment drudgery of running a restaurant.  Sometimes, however, Hamilton appears selectively guarded and evasive and maybe even a bit careless. In many places the book cries out for connective tissue that is missing and there are specific omissions that throw a reader off balance.  Her marriage remains opaque, you lose track of her relationship with her father. When her mother reappears in the book after a long absence, Hamkilton vents a fury at her that she hasn't set the stage for.   This is not a memoir with a neatly resolved ending.  Ms. Hamilton is too devoted to grit and realism to allow her story to be neatly resolved.  It is however a fiercely rendered book about food, travel, love, lost childhood, initiative, and self-reliance.   It is a story of hungers specific and vague, conquered and unappeasable, and what it lacks in urgency it makes up for in prose.  It was impossible to put down.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny, 2009, * * * *

The Brutal Telling is the fifth entry into the Armande Gamache series by Louise Penny, set in the small Canadian village of Three Pines, which is not located on any map.  The first chapter of this story opens deep in the forest when a conversation is overheard between a man identified only as "The Hermit" and Olivier Brule, the beloved owner of the village bistro.  The tone carries hints of fantasy and the forest primeval as The Hermit warns, "Chaos is here,old son."  There is an immediate sense of isolation and fear and then the story shifts to the village and the discovery of the The Hermit's body in the village Bistro.  Enter Chief Inspector Gamache of the Surete du Quebec and the hunt is on.  Once against Chief Inspector Gamache and his team are called in to strip back layers of lies, exposing both treasures and secrets. No one admits to knowing the murdered man but as secrets are revealed, chaos begins to close in on Olivier and Three Pines itself.  How did Olivier make such a spectacular success of his business?  What past did he leave behind and why has he buried himself in this tiny villge?  Why does every lead in the investigation find its way back to him?  As Olivier grows more frantic, a trail of clues and treasures -- from first editions of Charlotte's Web and Jane Eyre to a spider web with the word "WOE" woven in it -- the Chief Inspector goes across a continent in search of the truth and finally back to Three Pines for the "brutal telling."  The Brutal Telling stands out from the standard issue police procedural books because intertwined with the familiar workings of a murder investigation are poetry, art, and culinary delights plus history, philosophy, & psychology.  Readers new to the series will be as delighted as those returning.  Llike a soothing cup of tea on a cold day,  Louise Penny's literary mysteries should be sipped slowly and savored to the last drop.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

To Be Sung Underwater by Tom McNeal, 2011, * * * *

Let's face it--we are a country that loves second chances.  We want to rewrite our lives and swim against the current to recapture our pasts. That is certainly the case in Tom McNeal's hypnotic new novel to be sung underwater.  His complex, often heartbreaking heroine tries to find the first love she left behind many years ago.  Forty-four year old Judith Whitman has the veneer of a happy life, but there are cracks.  Her job as an editor on a TV drama isn't completely satisfying; she regrets the way her daughter is growing up and her seemingly loving husband appears to be having a dalliance with a co-worker.  Amid all this turmoil she experiences what she calls a "swerve" in life, and she begins thinking of her first love, Willy Blunt, a carpenter she fell in love with when she was 15 growing up in a small town in Nebraska. Judith begins to question her life, her choices and everything she has done since she was with Willy.  She is so richly drawn, so quirkily compelling, that you are immediately invested in her. In one of the novel's strangest turns, she rents a storage unit and begins to turn it into a refuge, a kind of home away from home that might feed her yearning.  She even takes on a secret identity.  One day, pining for her past, she tracks Willy down using a private investigator and makes a pilgrimage back to what she considers the life she should have led.  McNeal uses lyrical language and moves effortlessly through time to tell the twins tales of Judith's past and present.  It's hard not to fall in love with Willy Blunt because he is a guy who expects the best from people and has a code of honor so strong that it seems shatterproof.  However, just as you have given your heart to this story, McNeal breaks it with an ending that makes you feel cheated: a tacked-on shock that is a shame because everything that comes before is so ravishing.  Still, McNeal captures the flush of first love and the endurance of real devotion even as he probes deeper questions: Who are we with the ones we love and who are we without them? Heatbreaking, messy and incredibly sad, to be sung underwater is so vivivly written that it takes you to a place where all your perceptions seem dizzyingly altered.  Which is, of course, exactly like love itself.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Don't Lets Go To The Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller, 2001, * * * *

With the recent publication of Alexandra Fuller's new book Cocktail Hour Under The Tree of Forgetfulness I realized that I had never read her 2001 debut memoir Don't Let's Go To the Dogs Tonight. In this book she recalls in vivid, often excruciating detail, coming of age in Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) as a long civil war raged in neighboring Mozambique and her own country slid down the violent path toward an independent African Nationalist regime.  Alexandra Fuller arrived with her parents and elder sister Vanessa in Rhodesia in 1972, seven years after Ian Smith had made his disastrous unilateral declaration of independence in opposition of black majority rule. Her parents are British expatriates who had lived previously in both Kenya and Rhodesia and they move to a struggling farm in the remote Burma Valley on the eastern border with Mozambique, where Robert Mugabe's Shona Zanu guerrillas are launching cross-border raids at the start of the bush war, killing farmers on their isolated settlements.  By the age of five "Bobo" (Alexandra) and her sister Vanessa are taught to strip, clean and load the semi-automatic rifles their parents sleep with at night.  They are also taught opera and Shakespeare and while there never seems to be enough to eat, there are African servants, stables, boarding schools and country clubs.   When independence finally arrives in 1980 and Mugabe pursues reconciliation with the remaining whites, the Fullers decide to stay in Zimbabwe to manage another ruined farm, but their lives are a chain of calamities and woes; three of their five children die, the weather is relentless and debilitating, and Fuller monitors her mother's decline into alcoholism and mental breakdowns. She writes with wit and a tough, self-revealing honesty of the loneliness, boredom and poverty of their life -- and of the long nights after the generators have been swtiched off and the continued fear from land mines, wild animals, and civil wars. Like many first-time writers, she invents her own idiom, and experiments with alliteration, compound adjectives and short verbless sentences.  Yet once she relaxes into her style, the exuberance and readability of her narrative compels the suspension of critical judgment.  The Boston Globe commented in their review: "the extremely personal and unguarded understatement of this memoir is far more powerful than any sociopolitical analysis or apoligist interpretation could hope to be."  I cannot improve on that.

Friday, September 16, 2011

A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer, 2010, * * *

Lauren Belfer's medical thriller begins in December 1941, three days after the Japanese assult on Pearl Harbor.  Claire Shipley, a photojournalist working for the phenomellay successful Life Magazine, has come to the Rockefeller Institute in New York to record one of the earliest trials of a new medication called penicillin. Highly effective in experiements involving baterial infections in mice,  the country's brightest doctors and researchers are racing to find a cure that will save the lives of thousands of wounded American soldiers and countless others.  Claire's assignment introduces her to the world of Jamie Stanton, a dedicated physician at Rockefeller and his younger sister Tia, a mycologist,  who are involved in the research of this "miracle" drug.   Claire is a single mother haunted by the death of her young daughter, which might have been prevented by this drug, and by her divorce years ago.  Belfer uses the urgency of Stanton's mission -- finding a means of mass-producing penicillin - to add drama to the romantic attraction that develops between Claire and Jamie.  The novel's tension increases as Jamie is called away by the government to oversee top secret research for the military in laboratories throughout the nation. As the race for lucrative pharmaceutical patents on penicillin's cousins heats up, Claire's father , a wealthy tyconn, begins to play a significant role in the narrative.  A Fierce Radiance is an ambitious story, combining medical and military history with commercial rivalry, espionage and thwarted love.  Belfer captures the uncertainty and spirit, the dreams and hopes, of a nation at war.  It is a tale of love and betrayal, intrigue and idealism, and yet the ending fell far short of my expectations.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Wendy And The Lost Boys by Julie Salamon, 2011, * * * *

When playwright Wendy Wasserstein died in 2006, a lot of theater lovers grieved.  Many of them were people like me -- a woman, baby-boomer, product of the same kind of New England woman's college that Wasserstein attended and around the same age.  It was easy to believe that Wasserstein's plays, especially her Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy The Heidi Chronicles were about me and people I knew.  It was a common perception.  The truth, however, was that Wasserstein had a tremendously troubled life and much of that trouble -- a brash and insensitive mother, high-achieving siblings, a trail of gay men she loved and lost -- made their way into her plays.  All of that comes together in Salamon's provocative book, and although it's not likely to surprise those who followed Wasserstein's glistening but dark social commentaries, it paints a portrait of a woman who never made peace with herself or her world.  At first glance Wendy Wasserstein seemed to have it all - she grew up well-off in Brooklyn and then on Manhattan's Upper East Side, went to private schools, Mount Holyoke College, and the Yale School of Drama.  Salamon draws a deft picture of a woman plagued by ambition and insecurities, struggling with weight, craving a man and children but sabotaging herself over and over with gay men who could not fill those needs. Salamon  presents a fair description of a close but scarily dysfunctional family. It's tempting to want to conflate Wendy Wasserstein with the vivid and charismatic women she created for the stage -- real life is always messier. The best biographies revivify their subjects while immersing you in their world.  Wendy And The Lost Boys puts Wasserstein's most complex character -- the driven, social, secretive, confessional, comic, endearing, restless, cookie-fueled, weight conscious woman that she was --center stage under the bright lights.  It is a riveting production.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

A Rule Against Murder by Louise Penny, 2008, * * * *

July in Quebec can be quite hot and Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his beloved wife Reine-Marie are looking forward to spending their anniversary at their favorite inn -- Manoir Bellechasse.  When the Gamaches arrive they are a bit suprirsed to find the inn almost full due to a booking by an extended family named Finney, who is planning a ceremony to memorialize their late father.  It would be an understatement to label the Finneys as dysfunctional.  There is so much animosity among the four gtrown children, their spouses and their mother that it is a wonder they can coexist on the same planet. The emotional powder keg is obvious to Gamache and his wife as they begin to doubt the restorative brenefits of their holiday thinking that  it would have been better to go to Three Pines, the wonderful village that is the fictional setting for most of her books. Louise Penny has created in her "Inspector Gamache series" a clever combination of a police procedural and a cozy mystery novel.  Having a bona fide policeman as a protagonist lends a feeling of credibility and legitimacy to the pursuit of the wrongdoer, yet the nature of the deed divorces the tale from that of drug dealing, serial killer, or great conspiracy.  The novel is a classic "locked room" mystery with the available suspects limited to those at the inn at the time the crime was committed. The author has done an interesting thing with the main characters in her series.  Instead of introducing them dully in the first of the series, she lets the situations in which they become involved gradually explain what has happened in their lives prior to the first novel in the series. In this way she is able to avoid the tedium of reintroducing each character in each book and possbily boring her growing cadre of readers.  She carefully plants an enigmatic seed in the beginning chapters of the book which reveal more about her major players as the novel progresses.  I am a huge Louise Penny fan and am glad that my friend Phebe introduced me to this wonderful writer and series.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Weight of Heaven by Thrity Umrigar, 2009, * * * *

Umrigar (The Space Between Us) continues her exploration of cultural divides in this beautifully written and incisive novel about an American couple's experience in India. Frank and Ellie Benton have just lost their seven-year-oldd son Benny, after a short illness, and are unable to cope with this horrific loss.  When Frank is offered an assignment running a factory in Birgaug, India, a coastal village near Bombay, the Bentons decide to leave Ann Arbor, Michigan and try to start life anew.  While Frank tackles the barriers faced as an educated, wealthy American in charge of a Third World work force, Ellie, a therapist, basks in her new life making friends and volunteeering her services at a nearby clinic --  determined not to let grief define her life.  Frank's world brightens when he befriends Ramesh, the charming, inquisitive son of the Bentons' housekeeper and cook. Ramesh soon becomes a surrogate for Benny in a relationshiop that simultaneously boosts Frank's spirits and breaks his heart.   Umrigar digs into the effects of grief on a relationship and the many facets of culture clash -- especially American captialism's impact on a poor country.  However, it is the tale of how Frank's interest in Ramesh veers into obsession and comes to a devastating end the provides the gripping story.  The Weight of Heaven is a hauntingly beautiful story about cultural divides and misunderstandings, about loss and working through grief.  It is one of those rare books that forces you to take stock of your life and about the things that matter most. The Weight of Heaven is a bold, beautifully rendered tale of cultures that clash and coalesce.

Three Seconds by Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom, 2010, * * * *

Piet Hoffman is a devoted husband and the father of two young sons.  He's also an ex-con who has been working undercover for the Stockholm police for nine years.  Code named "Paula," Piet has risen through the ranks of the Polish mafia and is chosen to lead the Poles' effort to control the supply of amphetamines in Sweden's prisons.  To do that, Piet must get himself arrested and sent to a maximum security prison, wipe out the existing supplier, and keep himself alive until he has all the information needed for the police to move on the gang.  Before he goes to prison he haplessly witnesses a murder during a drug deal gone terribly wrong. While Inspector Ewert Grens investigates the murder he runs into the secret agenda run by another group within the police department. Roslund, a former journalist, and Hellstrom, a former criminal, have concocted a brilliant thriller that posits a nearly literal invasion of Sweden by East European criminals allied with former state security agents.  Combine that with a morally compromised police department and Ministry of Justice effort to combat the invasion, and you have a genuine crisis. Piet's growing fear of discovery or betrayal and his angst at this beloved wife's ignorance of the work rachet up the story's tension page by page and make the novel difficult to put down. Named the Swedish Crime Novel of the Year in 2009, Three Seconds is a stunningly well-written police procedural that is combined with a psychological suspense novel.  At times the suspense was so well drawn that I had to put the book down to regain my composure.  It is a gritty, breathtaking story of colliding cases featuring corrupt officials, a barely sane investigator, and a nimble and likable ex-con.  It is a compelling book that has long lingered in my mind.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, 2011, * * *

Dr. Marina Singh, the 42-year old research scientist who is the heroine of State of Wonder - Ann Patchett's most far-flung yet somehow least exotic book, is in her office at a large pharmaceutical company in Minnesota when the book opens. Marina is having an unremarkable affair with Mr. Fox, the company's bland CEO, when he arrives to tell her that  her research partner, Dr. Anders Eckman, has died of a fever in a remote part of Brazil.  The letter announcing Ander's death comes from Dr. Annick Swenson, a fierce if not exactly irreproachable figure who was a medical school professor of Marina's at Johns Hopkins. Swenson was so tough that she stopped Marina's medical career in its tracks and now Swenson is holed up in a remote outpost in the Amazonian jungle, working for Marina's pharmaceutical company,  where she is supposedly creating a new fertility drug that will be worth a fortune. Marina is expected to go to the jungle and get the lay of the land to find out about drug development and what happened to Anders. There are many detours on the way and not until Dr. Singh comes face to face with Dr. Swenson does this meandering novel find its focus. In books like Bel Canto and Run Ms. Patchett found amazing ways to coax unrelated elements into magically coherent narratives and make them all matter.  In this case, Dr. Swenson is far and away the book's best realized character but you have to drift past many secondary figures and tropical scenery before her presence is really felt.  It takes the toughness of Dr. Swenson, the sci-fi edge of the drug research,  and the partial awakening of the once-timid Marina to jolt State of Wonder up to the level of Ms. Patchett's usual work.  Perhaps the temptations of the Amazon are overwhelming for any writer with such a gift for animating her surroundings and the allusions to other works too great to overcome. 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship by Gail Caldwell, 2010, * * * *

Caldwell (A Strong West Wind) has managed to do the inexpressible in this quiet, fierce work -- create a memorable offering of love to her best friend, Caroline Knapp (Drinking: A Love Story) who died of lung cancer at age 42 in 2002.  The two met in the mid-1990s and Caldwell said that finding Caroline was "like placing a personal ad for an imaginary friend and then having her show up at your door funnier and better that what you had conceived".  Both single, writers, and living alone in Cambridge, Massachusetts (Caldwell was then book critic for the Boston Globe), the two women bonded over their dog runs at Fresh Pond Reservoir, traded lessons in rowing (Knapp's sport), and swimming (Caldwell's sport) and shared stories, clothes, and general support as best friends.  Morevover, both had stopped drinking at age 33 and both had survived early traumas  -- Caldwell had polio as a child and Knapp suffered anorexia. Their attachment to each other was deeply and mutualy satisfying. Unfortunately, Caldwell's health began to falter in March of 2002 when she was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer.  She died in June of that same year. Caldwell is unflinching in depicting her friend's last days and writes of her own grief and desolation with moving grace. Gail Caldwell presents a raw emotional account of what it is like to have a best friend say goodbye far before her time, but the story is less about loss and more about the triumphant life these two shared together as best friends and confidantes.  Their friendship teaches us that the importance of relationships is not just in having them, but in developing them with the people that complement us best.  The book is a remarkable story about the intersection of two kindred spirits.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda, 2010, * * * *

Secret Daughter is an unflinching yet compassionate story of mothers and daughters in a story that moves between two worlds and two families -- one struggling to survive in the fetid slums of Mumbai, India and the other grappling to forge a cohesive family despite diverging cultural identities in Northern California. The main characters are two mothers: Kavita Merchant, the impoverished villager who knows too well what happens to unwanted girls, and Somer Whitman, the American pediatrician who marries a fellow physician born in India.  Somer's infertility leads her and her husband, Krishnan Thakkar, to adopt Kavita's baby, Asha, from the Indian orphanage where Kavita had surrendered her. Gowda describes the cultural fears and shocks confronting a Western woman in India, followed by the insecurities attending Somer back home as she strives to mother a child who looks like Krishnan, but not her.  The story alternates viewpoints between Kavita and Somer, with occasional chapters told through the eyes of their husbands.  Later, a teenage Asha takes over much of the narrative as she journeys to India to meet Krishnan's family and search for her identity -- unaware that her birth mother never stopped wondering about the daughter she gave up. The sounds, scents and sights of India are vividly drawn, pulling you deeply into a culture that many have only glimpsed in movies like Slumdog Millionaire.  Two worlds collide, then meld, in a story that intimately considers how we all are shaped, through fate or free will, nurture or nature, by the astounding power of family love.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, 2010, * * * *

From the 1936 Olympics to WWII and Japan's most brutal POW camps, Hillenbrand's heart-wrenching new book is thousands of miles and a world away from the racing circuity of her bestselling book Seabiscuit.  The hero of this book is Louie Zamperini, a young Italian-American from Torrance, California. He was expected to be the first person to run a four-minute mile and after an astonishing but losing race at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, he was hoping for gold in the 1940 games. The war ended those dreams forever when,  as an Army Air Corps bombardier,  his B-24 crashed into the Pacific in May 1943.  After a record-breaking 47 days adrift on a shark-encircled life raft with is pal and pilot, Rusell Allen "Phil" Phillips, they were captured by the Japanese.  In the 'theater of cruelty' that was the Japanese POW camp network, Louie landed in the cruelst theaters of all: Omori and Naoetsu, under the control. of Corporal Mutsuhiro Watanabe, a pathologically brutal sadist, know as "the Bird."  By war's end Louie was near death when the camp was liberated in August 1945 but he was not free.  Haunted by his dreams, he was obsessed with vengenance, and drank to forget.  Untimately Louise had a defiant and unbreakable spirit and with the help of his wife, Cynthia Applewhite, he builds a new life.  In one of several sections where Hillenbrand steps back for a larger view, she writes movingly of the thousands of postwar Pacific PTSD sufferers who got no help for their as yet unrecognized illness.  It is impossible to condense the rich, grandular detail of the narrative of the atrocities comm itted against American POWs in Japan and the courage of Louie and his fellow POWs.  Hillenbrand's triumph is that in telling Louie's story she tells the stories of thousands whose suffering has been mostly forgotten and restores to our collective memory the tale of heroism, cruelty, life, death, joy, suffering remorselessness and redemption.

Stoner by John Williams, 1965, * * * * *

Stoner is written in the most plainspoken of styles...its hero being an obscure academic who endures a series of personal and professional agonies.  Yet the novel is utterly riveting because the author, John Williams, treats his characters with such tender and ruthless honesty.  You care about the characters whether you want to or not.  It is a novel of academia, unfulfilled hope, and a life not completely led.  It is basically a simple novel about a guy who goes to college and becomes a teacher but,  for some reason,  is fascinating. Its hero, William Stoner, is the son of hard-wroking, dirt-poor farmers from whom he inherits a taciturn stoicism born of sheer adversity.  Stoner enters the university in 1910 to study agriculture but his life change irrevocably when he comes upon literature in a sophomore survey course.  His future mentor humiliates him by asking him to explain Shakespare's Sonnet 73, a poem about love and loss that foreshadows his own future. Only two passions matter in Stoner's life, love and learning, and in a sense he fails at both. Stoner's deeply ingrained reticence is a keystone of the novel.  This is the story of an ordinary man, seemingly thwarted at every turn, but also of the knotty integrity he preserves and the deep inner life behind the impassive facade. Caught in an empty shell of a marriage, though too stoical to end it, he bonds deeply with his young daughter until his resentful wife evicts him from his daughter's life.  Stoner responds with a helpless sense of resignation but in his 40s begins an affair with a talented scholar half his age, which leads to an interlude of unlooked-for happiness.  Though the affair is broken up by Stoner's academic nemesis, who threatens scandal, it offers a hint of paradise that hovers dreamily over the rest of the novel.  Few stories this sad could be so secretly triumphant, or exhilarating.  Williams brings to Stoner's fate a quality of attention, a rare empathy, that shows us why this unassuming life was worth living.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

If I Stay by Gayle Forman, 2009, * * * *

The last normal moment that Mia, a talented cellist, can remember is being in the car with her family.  Then she is standing outside her body beside their mangled Buick and her parent's corpses, watching herself and her little brother being tended by paramedics.  As she ponders her state ("Am I dead?  I actually have to ask myself this"), Mia is whisked away to a hospital, where, her body in a coma, she reflects on the past and tries to decide whether to fight to live. Via Mia's thoughts and flashbacks, Forman (Sisters in Sanity) expertly explores the teenager's life, her passion for classical music and her strong relationships with her family, friends and boyfriend, Adam. Mia's singular perspective (which will recall Alice Sebold's adult novel, The Lovely Bones) also allows for powerful portraits of her friends and family as they cope.  "Please don't die.  If you die, there's going to be one of those cheesy Princess Diana memorials at school," prays Mia's friend Kim.  "I know you'd hate that kind of thing."  Intensely moving, the novel will force you to take a look at your life and the people and things that make it worth living.  A sophisticated, layered, and beautiful story about the power of family and friends, the choices we all make and the ultimate choice Mia commands. I truly appreciated her family and friends where everyone is their own character with specific traits and quirks and, amazingly, this is not a dysfunctional, but loving, family. Although this is listed in the library under Young Readers, I would highly recommend it to anyone.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt, 2010, * * * * *

On December 8, 2007, Amy Rosenblatt Solomon collapsed on a treadmill prior to going to work and died from an asymptomatic heart condition.  Roger Rosenblatt and his wife Ginny drove from their Long Island home to be with Any's husband and their three grandchildren: six-year-old Jessica, four-year-old Sammy, and one-year-old James, aka "Bubbies."   The memoir take place during the year that follows Amy's death, as Roger and Ginny, called "Boppo" and "Mimi" by their grandchildren, quickly reaccustom themselves to the choreography of the everyday and the extraordinary including bedtime stories, talking toys, playdates, homework, family vacations, holidays and nonstop questions.  As he marvels at the strength of his son-in-law, a surgeon, and the tenacity and skill of his wife, a former kindergarten teacher, Boppo attends each day to "the one household duty I have mastered" - preparing the morning toast perfectly to each child's liking. If there is one shortcoming to "Making Toast," it is that the writing often feels dispassionate.  The descriptions of tough times don't match up with the calm, unemotional explanations. However, the memoir commands your attention by other means, including the format -- there are no chapters -- only journal style entries each of which makes your heart ache. "Making Toast" is a bleakly beautiful scatter plot of grief which is a balm to read.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra, 2005, * * * *

The Swallows of Kabul is a dazzling novel written with compassion and exquisite detail about the memtality of Islamic fundamentalists and the complexities of the Muslim world,  Yasmina Khadra is the pen name of an Algerian army officer named Mohammed Moulessehould who adopted a woman's pseudonym to avoid military censorship.  He only revealed his true identity after leaving the army in 2001 and going into exile in France.  Set in Kabul under the rule of the Taliban, this extraordinary novel takes readers into the lives of two couples: Mohsen, who comes from a family of wealthy shopkekepers whom the Taliban has destroyed; Zunaira, his wife, exceedingly beautiful, who was once a brilliant teacher and is now no longer allowed to leave her home without an escort or covering her face.  Intersecting their world is Atiq,  a prison keeper, a man has sincerely adopted the Taliban ideology and struggles to keep his faith, and his wife, Musarrat, who once rescued Atiq, and is now dying of sickness and despair.   The novel brings readers into the hot, dusty streets, of Kabul and offers them an unflinching but compassionate insight into a society that violence and hypocrisy have brought to the edge of despair.  However, the way that reality is narrated and ultimately redefined, once more proves the power of fiction to turn our despair into hope, to restore our stolen sense of dignity and humanity and to desire life when death seems to be the safest refuge.

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, 2009, * * * * *

It is Enniscorthy, in Ireland's County Wexford, in the early 1950s and Eilis Lacey is one among many of her generation who cannot find work at home.  When a job is offered in America it is clear to everyone that she must go.  Leaving her family and country, Eilis heads for unfamiliar Brooklyn and to a crowded boarding house where the landlady's intense scrutiny and the small jealousies of her fellow residents only deepen her isolation. Slowly, however, the pain of parting is buried beneath the rhythms of her new life -- until she begins to realize that she as found a sort of happiness.  As she falls in love, news comes from home that forces her back to Enniscorthy, not to the constrictions of her old life, but to new possibilities which conflict deeply with the life she has left behind in Brooklyn.  In the quiet character of Eilis Lacey, Colm Toibin has created a memorable heroine and in Brooklyn he has written a luminous novel of devastating power.  The portrait Toibin paints of Brooklyn in the early '50s is affectionate but scarcely dewy-eyed.  Eilis encounters discrimnation in variouis forms -- against families, againsts blacks, against Jews, against lower-class Irish -- and finds Manhattan more intimidating than alluring. Toibin's prose is graceful but never showy, and his characters are interesting and believable.  As a study of the quest for home and the difficulty of figuring out where home really is, Brooklyn  has a universality that goes far beyond the specific details of Eilis's struggle.

The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee, 2008, * * *

Former Elle editor Lee delivers a debut novel dealing with the rigors of love and survival during a time of car, and the consequences of choices made under duress.  Claire Pendleton, newly married and arrived in Hong Kong in 1952, finds work giving piano lessons to the daughter of Melody and Victor Chen, a wealthy Chinese couple.  While the girl is less than interest in music, the Chen's British expat driver, Will Truesdale, is certainly interested in Claire, and vice versa. Their fast-blossoming affair is juxtaposed against a plot line beginning in 1941, when Will gets swept up by the beautiful and tempestuous Trudy Liang.  The novel then follows through his life during the Japanese occupation.  As Claire and Will's affiar becomes common knowledge, so do the specifics of Will's murky past, Trudy's motivations and Victor's role in past events.  The rippling of past actions through to the present lends the narrative layers of intrigue and more than a few unexpected twist.  Lee covers a little-known time in Chese history without melodrama, and deconstructs without judgment the choices people make in order to live one more day under tortuous circumstances.

Father of the Rain by Lily King, 2009, * * * *

You know you are in for some heavy weather when a novel takes its title from the Book of Job "Hath the rain a father?"  Lily King's third novel, Father of the Rain, is a moving drama about a daughter's attachment to a destructive, but often disarmingly charming father and about how that bond is pelted by the storms of divorce and alcoholism.  Father of the Rain covers 34 years in the life of Daley Amory, bookended by the summer of Richard Nixon's resignation and President Obama's election in 2008.  The political markers are significant, spanning an age of cynical disenchantment with the Establishment to an augury of unexpected hope.  The novel is set in an affluent East Coast seaside town, where Gardiner Amory has a life that revolves around dogs, tennis, martinis, a swimming pool, and step families. A Harvard-educated broker, he is a racist, anti-Semite, and sexist.  King is skilled at zeroing in on the nitty-gritty dynamics of the intense father-daughter relationship, but it is her sympathetic ancillary characters and two strategic jumps in her narrative that add texture and save it from claustrophobia.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Breath by Tim Winton, 2009, * * * *

In Breath, Tim Winton, evokes an adolescence spent resisting complacency, testing one's limits against nature, finding like-minded souls, and discovering just how far one breath will take you. It is a story of extremes--extreme sports and extreme emotions. On the wild, lonely coast of Western Australia, two thrill-seeking and barely adolescent boys fall into the enigmatic thrall of veteran big-wave surfer Sando. Together they form an odd but elite trio. The grown man initiates the boys into a kind of Spartan ethos, a regimen of risk and challenge, where they test themselves in storm swells on remote and shark-infested reefs, pushing each other to the edges of endurance, courage, and sanity. Their mentor's past is forbidden territory and his American wife's peculiar behavior indicates an unknown illness, possibly physical or mental.  Winton excels at conveying the shadowy side of his country's beauty, the way even the most ordinary landscape can exert a paralyzing hold.  Tim Winton is the prolific Australian author of nine novels, three short-story collections, six children's books, and three nonfiction books.   This novel is a paean to surfing but it treats elemental themes of fear and friendship, loneliness and boredom, the lure and danger of life lived intensely, and the broken promises of adolescence sliding into middle age.  The sensitivities and vulnerabilities of adolescence are depicted here with deft and painful accuracy.