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

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.