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

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman, 2011, * * *

Star crossed lovers are separated during WWII in Richman's fourth novel.  Josef and Lenka meet as students in Prague in 1936 and fall instantly in love.  Three years later, with Nazis crossing the border they rush to marry, but circumstances force them apart.  Lenka remains in Europe, and Josef flees to America.  For 61 years, each believes the other dead until they meet by chance at the wedding of their grandchildren.  The beautiful city of Prague with its elegant landscape and historical architecture was one of Hitler's conquests.  As in most European cities during WWII, the Jews were the scapegoats, and the Germans enacted the Nuremberg laws giving the Jews little freedom while removing all their worldly possessions to fill their illicit coffers.  Although Josef and Lenka marry Josef's family could secure exit visa only for their family and Lenka's family had no money or possessions to buy their way out of Czechoslovakia .  What follows is not the predictable ghetto/concentration camp horrors.  From the perspective of an artist, Richman provides beautiful images of Prague as well as portraying the grays, blacks, and odors of the camps.  Her writing evokes the smells of flowers and the stench of the train cars, barracks & illnesses prevalent in the camps.    There are secondary characters connecting the plot who are unique and serve to flesh out a balance of personalities.   The one weakness is Lenka's second marriage in contrast to Josef's second marriage.  Survivor's guilt seems to prevent Lenka & Josef from fully enjoying their continued existence.  Richman tackles the difficult subject matter combining undying passionate love with carnage and humiliation.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Unorthodox:The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman, 2012, * * * *

Born into the insular and exclusionary Hasidic community of Satmar in Brooklyn to a mentally disabled father  and a mother who fled the sect, Feldman, as she recounts in this memoir, seemed doomed to be an outsider from the start.  Raised by her devout grandparents, who forbade her to read in English, the ever-curious child craved books outside the synagogue teachings.  Feldman's spark of rebellion started with sneaking off to the library and hiding paperback novels under her bed.  Her boldest childhood revolution was that she bought an English translation of the Talmud,which would otherwise be kept from her, so that she might understand the prayers and stories that are the fabric of her existence.  At 17, hoping to be free of the scrutiny and gossip of her circle, she enters into an arranged marriage with a man she meets once before the wedding. Instead, having received no sex education from a culture that promotes procreation and repression simultaneously, she and her husband are unable to consummate the relationship for a year.  The absence of a sex life and failure to produce a child dominate her life, with her family and in-laws supplying constant pressure, she starts to experience panic attacks and the stirrings of her final break with being Hasidic.  It's when she finally does get pregnant and wants something more for her child that the full force of her uprising takes hold and she plots her escape.  Feldman, who now attends Sarah Lawrence College, offers this engaging and at times gripping insight into Brooklyn's Hasidic community. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny, 2012, * * *

This is the eighth novel in the Armande Gamache mystery series By Louise Penny, a Canadian author. The premise is fresh and fully realized when Chief Inspector Gamache and Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir venture into a world largely untouched by modernity but, regrettably, not untouched by sin. No outsiders are ever admitted to the monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups, hidden deep in the wilderness of Quebec, where two dozen cloistered monks live in peace and prayer.  They grow vegetables, tend chickens, make chocolate -- and they sing Gregorian Chants.  Ironically, for a community that has taken a vow of silence, the monks have become world-famous for their glorious voices, raised in ancient chants, whose effect on both singer and listener is so profound it is known as "the beautiful mystery."  When their renowned choir director is murdered, the lock on the monastery's massive wooden door is drawn back to admit Chief Inspector Gamache and Jean-Guy Beauvoir of the Surete du Quebec.  There they discover disquiet beneath the silence, discord in the apparent harmony.  One of the brothers, in this life of prayer and contemplation, has been contemplating murder.  As the peace of the monastery crumbles, Gamache is forced to confront some of his own demons, as well as those roaming the remote corridors.   Before finding the killer and restoring peace, The Chief must first consider the divine, the human, and the cracks in-between.  The plot, sluggish in the beginning while describing the abbey in great detail, quickens when Gamache's nemesis, Chief Inspector Francoeur turns up at the abbey's door, followed, in short order, by a young Dominican monk sent from Rome.  By its conclusion, The Beautiful Mystery transforms itself into an emotionally harrowing tale. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Stonecutter by Camilla Lackberg, 2012, * * * *

One of Sweden's most successful authors, Camilla Lackberg is already being hailed as Scandinavia's next big export.  The Stonecutter is an immense thriller, spread thick with autumnal chill and an astute exploration of a fragile small-town community.  Hemmed by forests and steely seas, the town of Fjallbacka broods with secrets and creaks with inter-generational tension - a winning choice of a stage on which to play out a murder.  The body of a young girl pulled up by a lobster-man is disturbing enough, but when the autopsy reveals that her lungs were full of bath water mixed with ashes, the story takes a turn for the harrowing.  As the police investigate, Lackberg presents a tapestry of characters, intricately stitched, each with their own hidden indiscretions, suspicions and grudges, as well as quieter struggles with grief, depression or estrangement. What is most impressive is the way Lackberg manages to give equal narrative heft to the mystery and to her characters' inner lives, without letting up on the fast-moving unfolding of events.  When the characters are well-drawn, this makes for compulsive reading.  When more superficial characters are given inner monologues, however, the narrative becomes heavy handed with key revelations standing out a little too starkly.  Attempts at psychological complexity have mixed results.  A young man with Asperger's syndrome is painfully stereotypical  while the slow, visceral revelation of the murderer's history is more convincing.  Told in fleeting flashbacks at the beginning of each chapter, this history draws inexorably closer to the present, showing just how poisonous deep-buried secrets can become.   By the time this novel concludes on a jarring note of violence, the wisdom of the old adage about one bad apple spoiling the whole bushel will be sadly proved all too true. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Where'd You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple, 2012, * * * *

Two days before Christmas, 15-year old Bee Branch's mother, Bernadette Fox, disappeared. Her Dad, a Microsoft guru working in the field of artificial intelligence tells the distraught Bee that (a) it's not her fault and (b) it's complicated.  "Of course it's complicated.  Just because it's complicated, just because you think you can't ever know everything about another person, it doesn't mean you can't try, says the intrepid teen, who puts together a record of her mother's life from emails, blogs, articles, and official government correspondence.   Before she was Bee's Mom, Bernadette Fox was a Los Angeles architect, winner of a MacArthur genius grant, who is a legend among college students even though her most famous work no longer exists.  After a project went terribly wrong, Bernadette and her husband, Elgin, relocated to a crumbling girls' reform school, the only non-Craftsman dwelling Bernadette could find, where Bernadette becomes a recluse who rages against the Emerald City's crunchy "connectitude", five-way traffic stops, and Canadians. The house they live in has deteriorated to the point where gardeners come in weekly to weed-whack the blackberry roots pushing up through the floor and Bernadette outsources basic errands to a virtual assistant in India.  Then Bee claims her reward for perfect grades through middle school - a family cruise to Antarctica -  and Bernadette finds herself panicking about everything from motion sickness to being trapped on a vessel with 149 other people.  After her disappearance Bee decides that Bernadette must have used the cruise to pull off her vanishing act and is determined to follow her mother literally to the ends of the earth. Semple used to write for the cult hit "Arrested Development" and she brings plenty of squirming comedy to this novel.  Her send-up of Seattle is hilarious, with its Victims Against Victimhood support groups, moms offering organic gardeners swiss chard in lieu of payment, and teachers who are so PC that fourth graders are expected to seriously debate the pros and cons of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. But the heart of the book belongs to Bee, who tests offf the chart for grit and poise and her mother, who for all her neuroses, did a bang-up job of turning out one terrific kid. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, 2012, * * * *

Meet Nick and Amy Dunne whose marriage is their most obsessive and dangerous passion.  Their marital un-bliss is so destructive that it could undo George and Martha who burned up the pages of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? How did things get so bad?  Gillian Flynn, whose award winning Dark Places and Sharp Objects also shone a dark light on dysfunctional characters, delves this time into what happens when two people marry and one spouse has no idea who their beloved really is.  Life starts to unravel when Nick and Amy lose their jobs in New York and move to Carthage, Missouri to care for Nick's ailing Mom. One day Amy disappears and, because they always do, the police take a close look at the seemingly distraught husband. To peel away even one layer of what happens to Nick and Amy is giving too much away. Nick insists he had nothing to do with her disappearance even though he's a liar and a cheat. Someone may be setting him up, and as the investigation goes deeper, he's looking more and more like a murderer with a means and a motive. Flynn tells this dark story by alternating first-person accounts from Amy and Nick. Flynn  manipulates the story-line of Gone Girl by releasing tidbits of information at the most opportune time, when the shock value is at its highest.  The plot is mind-blowing; while the book has many twists, there is one huge one that will leave you aghast. It is a wonderful psychological thriller. 

Oxygen by Carol Cassella, 2008, * * * *

The protagonists of Carol Cassella's debut novel Oxygen is a 37-year old anesthesiologist Dr. Marie Heaton, a dedicated and conscientious physician.  After introducing herself to patient and reassuring them that they are in good hands, she administers drugs that bring about "a temporary loss of sensation, an absence of pain.."  Marie loves the precision and focus of her job with its balance of technical skill and judgment.  Marie's life, however, comes to a screeching halt when she administers anesthesia to an 8-year old girl named Jolene Jansen.  For some inexplicable reason, Jolene's heart rate plummets and her blood loses its oxygen supply.  Although Dr. Heaton tries every technique at her disposal to bring the child back,  she fails.  The devastating tragedy leads to sleepless nights during which Marie second-guesses herself, wondering what she could have done differently. She is also on tenterhooks waiting for the inevitable malpractice suit to be filed.  she is raked over the coals by lawyers and members of the hospitals board and the events in this novel demonstrate how selfish and callous individuals bring untold misery to their friends, family, and coworkers.  The author, who is a practicing anesthesiologist, provides an insider's look into the political, legal, and human sides of modern hospital care.  She also imbues the story with an added dimension by shedding light on Marie's personal life. Oxygen builds in intensity until it reaches its electrifying conclusion.  With the compassion of Jodi Picault and the medical realism of Atul Gawande,  Oxygen proved to be a very satisfying read about relationships and family that collides with a high-stakes medical drama. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty, 2012, * * *

From Australian writer Moriarty (The Last Anniversary) this novel amounts to a domestic escapism about a woman whose temporary amnesia makes her re-examine what really matters to her.  Alice wake from what she thinks is a dream, assuming she is a recently married 29-year-old expecting her first child.  Actually she is 39, the mother of three children and in the middle of an acrimonious custody battle with her soon-to-be ex-husband Nick.  She has fallen off her spin cycle and the resulting bump on her head has not only erased her memory of the past 10 years but has also taken her psychologically back to a younger, more easygoing self at odds with the woman she gathers she has become.  While Alice at 29 is loving and playful if lacking ambition or self-confidence, Alive at 39 i8s a highly efficiently if too tightly wound supermom.  She is also thin and rich since Nick now heads the company where she remembers him struggling in an entry-level position.  The 29-year-old Alice cannot conceive that she and Nick would no longer be madly in love nor that she and her adored older sister Elisabeth could be estranged.  She is doubly shocked to learn that her shy mother has married Nick's bumptious father and has taken up salsa dancing.  She neither remembers nor recognizes her three children nor does she know what to do with the perfectly nice boyfriend she has acquired at 39.  As her memory gradually returns, Alice initially misinterprets the scattered images and flashes of emotion, especially those concerning Gina, a woman who evidently caused the rift with Nick., although she senses that Gina may not have been a completely positive influence. The novel asks the age-old question, What if? What if you had the chance to do over your past?  Would you make the same decisions? I didn't love the way the author tided up the end of the story but it does make your think about choices and chances. 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Out Most Alluring Fruit by Barry Estabrook, 2011, * * * *

Supermarket produce sections, bulging with a year-round supply of perfectly round, bright-red-orange tomatoes have become all but a national birthright. But in Tomatoland, which is based on his James Beard Award-winning article, "The Price of Tomatoes,", investigative food journalist Barry Estabrook reveals the huge human and environmental cost of the $5 billion fresh tomato industry.  Fields are sprayed with more than one hundred different herbicides and pesticides.  Tomatoes are picked hard and green and artificially gassed until their skins acquire a marketable hue.  Modern plant breeding has tripled yields, but has also produced fruits with dramatically reduced amounts of calcium, vitamin A, and Vitamin C, and tomatoes that have fourteen times more sodium than the tomatoes our parents enjoyed.  The relentless drive for low costs has also fostered a thriving modern-day slave trade in the United States. Estabrook traces the supermarket tomato from its birthplace in the deserts of Peru to the impoverished town of Immokalee, Florida, a.k.a. the tomato capital of the United States.  He visits the laboratories of seedsmen trying to develop varieties that can withstand the rigors of agribusiness and moves on to commercial growers who operate on tens of thousands of acres. Throughout the book Mr. Estabrook presents a who's who cast of characters in the tomato industry: the avuncular octogenarian whose conglomerate grows one out of every eight tomatoes eaten in the USA; the ex-Marine who heads the group that dictates the size, color and shape of every tomato shipped out of Florida;  the US attorney who has doggedly prosecuted human traffickers for the past decade; and the Guatemalan peasant who came north to earn money for his parents' medical bills and found himself enslaved for two years.  Tomatoland is not as philosophically rich as Michael Pollan'sOmnivore's Dilemma nor as adrenalized as Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation. However, it reads like a suspenseful whodunit as well as an expose of today's agribusiness system and the price we pay as a society when we take taste any thought out of our food purchases. 

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan, 2012, * * *

Grace Winter, the anti-heroine of the novel is nothing if not a survivor.  Twenty-two years old and clearly very attractive, she narrates the book a good dose of unreliability. When the ocean liner transporting Grace and her very rich new husband to the United States on the eve of WWI,  suffers a catastrophic explosion, she wedges her self into Lifeboat 14, along with 38 others. There she staves off the mounting hysteria around her and aligns herself with John Hardie, an experienced sailor who takes control of the food and water and make instantaneous, God-like decisions.  As the boat is seriously over crowded, for any to survive, a few must volunteer to go over the side, and you can bet that Grace won't be one of them. Framed by scenes of Grace after the ordeal - she has been charged, along with two other survivors, or murder of one of their companions - the bulk of the novel traps you in the disintegrating world of the lifeboat, buffeted by squalls and by a brewing power struggle. While I had hoped for a more intense story about the dynamics of people unknown to each other being placed in peril on a lifeboat, this turned out to be a strangely dispassionate narrative from only one person's perspective.  Grace is a seriously flawed person, and that usually offers a literary opportunity for growth.  However, Grace's flaws were with her before the lifeboat, remained with her throughout the time on the sea, and her trial, and she came out the other side essentially unchanged.  There are many loose ends left unresolved, showing them to be no more than red herrings and filler -- and the book ends with a shrug. 

Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Good Father by Noah Hawley, 2012, * * * *

Imagine your child was accused of a heinous crime.  How far would you go to find out the truth and protect him?  At what point would you start blaming yourself?  Noah Hawley's latest page turner, The Good Father examines this scenario and poses heartbreaking questions about parenting, love's limits, and good versus evil.  Told from the perspectives of both the determined, anguished father and his lost son, Hawley takes you deep into a family's history and unearths a tragic back story, while keeping the reader guessing about the son's culpability.  Dr. Paul Allen is a well respected man living a comfortable life with his second wife and their family when his world is blown apart by the news that his son Danny, from his first marriage, has murdered the Democratic nominee for President of the United States.  Paul strives to understand what has happened, refusing to entertain the idea that his son has carried out these acts. The narrative of The Good Father is shaped by Paul's obsessive need to understand how his remote but seemingly  normal child could join Lee Harvey Oswald and John Hinckley on the roster of creepily unassuming American assasins.    It is also a  story of a young man on a quest for identity and meaning, and a father who can't face the truth that he was never quite the father his son needed. It makes you uncomfortable and gets you thinking that you may not know your own child.  The Good Father packs an emotional punch, not as a harrowing investigation of evil, a critique of gun violence in America, or a guide to good parenting,  but as an account of a father finally accepting his son, for better or worse. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar, 2012, * * *

Hayat Shah is an impressionable adolescent and the only child of a well-to-do secular family. He finds his comfortable existence upended by the arrival of his mother's childhood friend who has fled a life of abuse and repression in Pakistan. Mina, a strikingly beautiful woman and a fan of Henry Miller and F. Scott Fitzgerald, captivates Hayat by schooling him in her liberal interpretations of the Qu'ran.  She inspires his spiritual awakening at a time that coincides uneasily with his sexual awakening.  Hayat's marginally religious mother is too preoccupied trying to catch her philandering husband's attention to notice her son's growing alienation while his defiantly secular father is too busy cheating, drinking and wallowing in his own cynicism to pay his introverted son much attention beyond the occasional lecture about religion.  Mr. Akhtar's observations of the  clashes between old world and new, between secular and sacred might seem familiar to readers of both contemporary and classic literature.  Strong thematic affinities and plot parallels exist between this work and more than a handful of other - "The Namesake" by Jhumpa Lahiri; "Love Marriage" by V. V. Ganeshananthan and Pauls Toutonghi's "Red Weather," a 2006 comedy about Latvians in Milwaukee.  The yearning and conflicted emotions of Hayat suggest a PG-13 version of a Philip Roth character or more repressed version of Eugene Jerome, Neil Simon's alter ego in "Brighton Beach Memoirs."   When you are away from the character of Mina, however, it is nearly impossible to find one other redeemable character in the Indian-Pakistan community of Muslims. From the Islamic Center to the wedding hall, their fellow worshipers are like characters from a Herman Cain speech - fanatical, under-evolved, sheep-like, and willfully in-assimilated. It's such a shift from the complex characters inside the Shah home that the story line suffers after it sinks into the one-dimensional world outside their door.  Although he illuminates the age-old struggle of separating spirituality from dogma, faith from cultural baggage and intent from political agenda, this is only successful half the time.  If only he had enough faith in his readers to present Hayat and Mina's complex relationship with their religion - and the world around them - as something other than exceptional.  

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail by Cheryl Strayed, 2012, * * * *

Cheryl Strayed was 26 years old in 1995, and a novice hiker, when she decided to embark on a solo trek along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), a scenic footpath that zigzags over the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain for 2,650 miles between Mexico and Canada.  Her memoir, Wild,  opens with the impetus for her journey: the sudden death of her 45-year old mother just 49 days after being diagnosed with lung cancer.  Despondent and disoriented in the wake of her loss, Strayed self-destructs.  She cheats on, and then leaves, her beloved husband, shoots heroin, has an abortion and adopts a new last name.  Not sure what she is in search of and woefully unprepared, she sets off with a guidebook, a collection of poems, hiking books that are too small, an ice ax she doesn't know how to use and a ridiculously overweight pack dubbed "Monster."  Strayed's writing conveys the rigors and rewards of long-distance hiking: aches, pains, loneliness, persistent hunger, and blistered, bloody feet.  There are bears and rattlesnakes, the real threats of dehydration and hypothermia, and camp rangers who call her "baby" and invite her back to their cabins. She talks about moments of lust, desire, and kinship with other hikers with satisfying frankness. Having tackled the Appalachian Trail over three decades ago, I found her book to be a fascinating physical and psychological journey through a wilderness of despair to a renewed sense of self. Strayed portrays herself as both weak and strong, daunted and determined, desperately lonely and fiercely independent.  As she moves through her contradictory feelings during the three months on the PCT, she becomes someone new.  It is a remarkable journey. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Ed King by David Guterson, 2011, * * *

Guterson stormed the publishing industry with his 1994 debut novel Snow Falling on Cedars.  It was a poetic and intensely atmospheric drama that brimmed with issues of morality - simple right and wrong. In three subsequent novels, Guterson changed speeds and became less oriented around plot and community choosing instead to hone in one specific individuals, their inner demons replacing real-world adversaries.  Still, Guterson retained a recognizable style which included his reverence for nature, particularly the rugged, rain-drenched landscapes of the Pacific Northwest, along with his earnestness and dogged attention to detail which continued to define him as a writer. Those days are over. In Ed King, Guterson's unassuming traits have been supplanted by caustic cynicism and ironic humor.  Here Guterson uses key elements of Oedipus the King as scaffolding for a snarky novel skewering contemporary values. In 1962, a 34-year old actuary seduces an underage au pair producing a child who, abandoned, is adopted by the prosperous King family and named Edward.  But Ed is not a king in name only; he grows into the 'king of search,' a man in the mold of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates who runs a company akin to Google called Pythia.  The characters are superficially realized and relentlessly ridiculed; the cure for the guilt that Ed feels over causing a stranger's death is the right antidepressant. Ed has copious encounters with older girls, then older woman, a recurring theme Guterson employs to trumpet his point. Ed is not only Sophocles's Oedipus but also Freud's, thanks to an oversized and over simplified Oedipus complex.  Ed King is an interesting undertaking but the lack of basic storytelling catches up with Guterson as this master of subtle scenes and emotionally resonant moments has managed to write a book devoid of either.  As a result, the superficial characters and their unrelenting amorality eventually begin to grate, as does the preordained story line.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Sister by Rosamund Lupton, 2010, * * *

Sister is billed as a complex psychological thriller and is told as a series of "letters" from Beatrice to her dead sister, Tess. At the beginning of the book, you are aware that Tess is dead and that Beatrice was the one to discover her killer.  It is also evident that the police bungled the case and can't be trusted. Lupton takes on serious issues in the book including physical abuse, financial vulnerability, gene therapy and single mothers and has a great deal to say about how women are treated in society.  However, I appear to be in the minority in my review of this novel.  At first I found the premise interesting as Beatrice, a young English woman living in NYC, is contacted that her beloved sister in London has gone missing.  Beatrice immediately flies to London and begins an arduous investigation of her younger sister's death, which was presumed to be a suicide.  The novel, through a series of memos to Tess, establishes a chronology of her search mixed with memories of their childhood and relationship.  During the analysis into the death of her sister, you are introduced to a long-suffering mother, a brother who died of cystic fibrosis, Beatrice's fiance, and Tess's relationships with a wide group of people.  There is also a question as to whether the events existed or are a product of Beatrice's imagination.  If the events did not exist, there is no reason for the subplot in the novel.  All of this results in a weak crime plot in contrast to the depiction of the relationships sisters and mothers. I did not think the ending was shocking, although it was intended to be,  and I am not sure that the story was about the search for Tess's killer or rather the redemption of relationships and Beatrice's progressive failing mental and physical health.  By the ending, I simply did not care.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Monday Mornings by Sanjay Gupta, 2012, * * *

In this novel, Sanjay Gupta, the ubiquitous CNN senior medical correspondent, practicing neurosurgeon, and frequent reporter on 60 Minutes takes readers into the closed-door meetings known as  mortality and morbility conferences (M&Ms)  where doctors are called to review the death or near death of a patient. Monday Mornings, the book's title, are when the M&M conferences for surgery occur at the unforgiving hour of 6:00 AM at fictional Chelsea Hospital. Like Icarus, full of hubris, these physicians fly too high and too close to the sun's searing rays.  Down is the only direction when that happens.  In other words, there is no shortage of dramatic cases gone awry to summon the bleary doctors to face the unsparing critique of their peers in the Monday morning meetings.  The book's moral tale is no less forceful.There is a great deal of human carnage by the end of the novel, with no major protagonist spared.  The plot follows five surgeons both inside and outside of the hospital. The parts of the books that "pulled back the curtain" on M&M meetings were really good because Gupta is a surgeon himself.  However, his character development was less than stellar, and some of the characters are just two dimensional, if not one-dimensional. Additionally, it feels like the ending is sewn together a little too neatly in order to bring the novel to a close.  It does, however, sound like a good TV show and shooting for Chelsea General begins soon, starring Alfred Molina and Ving Rhames and produced by David E. Kelley (Boston Legal, Chicago Hope, Ally McBeal).

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Beyond the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death & Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo, 2012, * * * *

 This is a deeply researched account of the resident of a Mumbai, India slum written by Katherine Boo, a Pulitzer prize winner and staff writer for The New Yorker.   Divided into four parts, the book brings to life the world of Annawadi, a half-acre of sewage-lake and 335 huts that look as though they "had fallen out of the sky and gotten smashed upon landing." Encircling the slum, and just beyond billboards for Italian floor tile whose tagline is 'beautiful forever' are fivey luxury hotels and the Sahar International Airport, a gleaming "overcity" that produces 8,000 tons of garbage per day, garbage from which some of Annawadi's residents scratch a living. Characters include Abdul, an undersized adolescent and sole earner for his parents and eight siblings, a boy with no illusion that he will ever be more than a garbage sorter; Asha, a ruthless schemer who wields political power over her neighbors; and Sunil, a motherless boy who finds a narrow ledge onto which taxi drivers throw used cups and bottles where he scavenges for a living.  Annawadi is teeming, chaotic, intensively alive and rife with death, playing children, drunken parents, wailing women,  rats and weeds. Omly the clever and brave survive. One can hope for justice, but what is hope compared to money? Mumbai's lifeblood is corruption and allocated resources rarely wind up where they are supposed to.  The book is fascinating but there is no redemption for any of the characters and no recommendations to make things better.  The problem of poverty, not just in India, is so pervasive that it is not clear that it can be fixed without a massive culture shift in some cases and significant amounts of funding in others.  The writing leaves an indelible impression of human beings behind the shibboleths of the New India. 

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund De Waal, 2010, * * * *

Edmund De Waal, the most renowed ceramacist in England today, became the fifth generation to inherit an exquisite collection of 264 netsuke, miniature sculptures carved from ivory or wood that were invented in 17th century Japan.  None of the sculptures is larger than a matchbox.  I first learned about this book after reading a column in the New York Timesby Roger Cohen entitle "The Netsuke Survived" which described the survival - not only of a collection of netsuke ("prounounced netski") but also of the European Jewish family through whose various hands the objects passed. De Waal's research sidetracked him for two years and turned into an obsession.  The story is at once absorbing and moving and follows the Ephrussi family as they work their way to fame and fortune in Paris and Vienna in the late 1800s.  The fortune derived from their prodigious success in the banking business - a success that initially gave its members access to social elites and cultural salons - the family was friends with Proust, Renoir, Degas etc. Following "l'affaire Dreyfus" and its opening of the deep vein of envy and distrust of Jew in French society , the family was now personae non grata.  The Anschluss, the occupation and annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in 1938 changed their world beyond recognition.  The Ephrussi family appropriated their possessions and homes and the netsuke survived only due to a loyal maid who smuggled them in a mattress.  The survival of the netsuke is wondrous but sometimes they are more distraction than narrative.  The story of the Ephrussis is amazing but the netsukes are often belabored.  Despite that, it is still a rich and absorbing read.

Facing the Wind: A True Story of Tragedy and Reconciliation by Julie Salamon, 2001, * * *

This is a suspenseful, well-researched account of the life of a Brooklyn lawyer named Robert Rowe, who murdered his wife and three children in 1978 and escaped prison with an insanity plea. Salamon (Wendy and the Lost Boys; Hospital, The Devil's Candy) draws on court and hospital records, Rowe's diaries, and her interviews with the people who knew him to explore the psychological dynamics of his crime from every angle.  His marriage to his first wife, Mary, seemed idyllic until their second son, Christopher, was born with severe visual and neurological impairments. Eventually the Rowes joined the Industrial Home for the Blind (IHB) - a support group in which parents, mostly mothers, discussed the emotional challenges of raising disabled children. The author's sympathetic portraits of IHB members reveal that homicidal thoughts were common among such parents, forcing readers to realize the personal pressures that parents of disabled children face.  During the 1970s, Rowe began to suffer from an undetermined mental illness that prevented him from working. Heeding what he claimed to be the wishes of his late mother, one day he bludgeoned his wife and three children to death with a baseball bat.  Charged with four counts of second-degree murder, he was sent to Creedmoor Psychiatric Center for ten years.  Salamon devotes the second half of her investigation to Rowe's second wife, Colleen, who although aware of Rowe's crime, gave birth to his fourth child.  In the final chapter, after Rowe has died of cancer, Salamon allows the women of IHB to meet Colleen and debate Rowe's right to evade punishment and create a new family.  While Salamon concludes that Rowe believed himself to be a victim of mental disability and refused to accept responsibility for his actions, she encourages readers to make their own judgment.  It is a perturbing read that probes one to consider guilt and innocence from new perspectives. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome, 1889, * * * *

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) was an instant success when it was published in 1889 and it has been in print ever since.  It has to be one of the funniest books every written beginning with the opening chapter where the narrator reads a medical book and decides that he has every medical disease mentioned excepting 'housemaid's knee."  From there, he and his two bet friends, and a world-weary fox terrier named Montmorency decide to get away from it all with a boat trip up the River Thames - and that's the book.  It's full of one hilarious episode after another with side tidbits on the historical places they pass on the way.  The humor lies not in the plot but in the detail and the antics of the three men with their differing attitudes and approaches to the problems that arise.  Most of the comedy comes from set pieces such as the agony of putting up a tent in adverse weather conditions, finding the correct train at a railway station, or the simple act of hanging a picture.  I first heard about the book on an NPR program and thought that it just could not be that funny but I was wrong.  Perhaps the key to its success is a combination of simplicity and set-piece humorous incidents, most of which have a timeless, universal appeal.  All I can say is that if you like Mark Twain and P.G. Wodehouse -- get this book -- it is intelligent, witty, and laugh-out-loud hilarious!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Some of My Lives: A Scrapbook Memoir by Rosamund Bernier, 2011, * * * *

In the late summer of 1926, when Rosamond Bernier was not quite 10 years old, her father put her on a ship and sent her off to her English boarding school, all by herself.  Every evening she changed into a party dress and then retired to a smoking room for gambling.  "I had spectacular luck," Bernier writes in this bonbon of a book.  Throughout her long life, Bernie who is now 96, has had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Rosamund Bernier has lived an unusually full life, remarkable for its vividness and diversity of experience and she has known many of the greatest artists and composers of the twentieth century.    With little experience her determination and instincts led to jobs such as Vogue's first European feature's editor and a gig at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where her lectures were "the hottest ticket in New York." She wasn't an artist or a socialite, but she turned being social into an art. In Some of My Lives she has made a literary scrapbook from an extraordinary array of writings ranging from diary entries to her many contributions to the art journal L'Oeil, which she co-founded in 1955.  The result is a multifaceted self-portrait of a life informed and surrounded by the arts. Through the stories of her encounters with some of the twentieth century's great artists and composers including Pablo Picasso, Leonard Bernstein, Max Ernst, Aaron Copland,  Frida  Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Kark Lagerfeld, you come to understand the sheer richness of Bernier's experiences, interactions, and memories.  The result is pithy, hilarious, and wise -- a richly rewarding chronicle of many lives fully lived.   

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Boomerang by Michael Lewis, 2011, * * * * *

Michael Lewis possesses the rare storyteller's ability to make virtually any subject seem both lucid and compelling.  In his new book, Boomerang, he actually makes topics like European sovereign debt, the International Monetary Fund (I.M.F.) and the European Central Bank not only comprehensible but also fascinating - even, or especially, to readers who rarely open the business pages or watch CNBC. The book could not be more timely given the worries about Europe's deepening debt crisis and the recent warning issued by Christine Lagard, managing director of the I.M.F. that "the current economic situation is entering a dangerous phase."  Combining his easy familiarity with finance and the talents of a good travel writer,  The book does not aspire to provide a broad overview of the debt crisis but does provide a sparkling prism by which to view the problem from a global perspective. In examining the cases of Iceland, Ireland, Greece and Germany, Mr. Lewis seeks to attribute the differing causes of economic turmoil and their varying outcomes to each country's distinctive national characteristics.  Thus Iceland went mad on banking because, as a nation of fisherman, it has a culture steeped in macho risk-taking; Ireland went mad on house buying because as a nation beset by a history of oppression and exploitation, landowning was the ultimate escape from the past; Greece went mad on avoiding tax payments and collection because they are a nation built on feuding, nepotism and graft and Germany is left to pay the bill because they are a nation who likes the thrill of thrusting its clean fingers into other people's dirty laundry. Michael Lewis has a wonderful talent for distilling complicated stories, whether bond trading in New York (Liar's Poker) or a baseball-analysis revolution in Oakland, CA (Moneyball) in simple terms and with telling detail. Boomerang, adapted from a series of essays he wrote for Vanity Fair Magazine, does not disappoint on this score.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Steve Jobs by Water Isaacson, 2011, * * * *

Steve Jobs asked Walter Isaacson, a former Managing Editor at Time Magazine, former Chairman and CEO of CNN and a biographer of Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin to write his autobiography while he was still alive. Mr. Jobs, the brilliant and protean creator whose inventions so utterly transformed the allure of technology, turned lessons he learned from his father about "doing things right"" into an all-purpose theory of intelligent design. Mr. Jobs, who founded Apple with Stephen Wozniak in 1976, began his career as a seemingly contradictory blend of hippie truth seeker" and" tech-savvy hothead." Based on more than 40 interviews with Jobs as well as with friends, family, adversaries, competitors and colleagues, Isaacson has created a story of the roller-coaster life and searingly intense personality of a creative entrepreneur whose passion for perfection and ferocious drive revolutionized six industries: personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing and digital publishing.  The book takes us to a time when laptops, desktops and windows were metaphors, not everyday realities and describes how each of the Apple innovations that we now take for granted,  first occurred to Mr. Jobs or his creative team. At a time when America is seeking ways to sustain its innovative edge, and when societies around the world are trying to build digital-age economies, Jobs stands as the ultimate icon of inventiveness and applied imagination. Skeptic after skeptic made the mistake of underrating Steve Jobs saying "Sorry, Steve, Here's Why Apple Stores Won't Work" which Business Week wrote in 2001 or "The iPod Will Likely Become a Niche Product" as stated by a Harvard Business School professor. Steve Jobs had the last laugh each and every time.  Driven by demons, Jobs could drive those around him to fury and despair but his personality and products were interrelated, just as Apple's hardware and software tended to be. His story is instructive and cautionary, filled with lessons about innovation, character, leadership and values. Throughout the book Jobs is called rude, insensitive, mean, petulant, obnoxious, vengeful and a bully.  Few dispute his genius and most agree with the nasty adjectives used to describe him but he was also charismatic. He was often quoted as having a "reality distortion field" -- in his presence reality was malleable and he was able to convince anyone of almost anything.  Isaacson tells the story from the making of the first Apple computer to the Mac, the boardroom intrigues, NeXT computer, Pixar and the rebirth of Apple and the products he created in the past 10 years.  The book raises the question of what it took to make the world's most iconic brand -- it is the stuff of legends!