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

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.