Search This Blog

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Sweet Dreams

Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English
Natasha Solomons
Little, Brown, 2010

At the outset of World War II, Jack Rosenblum, his wife Sadie, and their baby daughter escape Berlin, bound for London. They are greeted with a pamphlet instructing immigrants how to act like "the English." Jack fully embraces learning to be British, but Sadie does not. The more Jack tries to assimilate, the more Sadie misses her family and the community she left behind. Jack acquires Saville Row suits and a Jaguar. He buys his marmalade from Fortnum & Mason and learns to list the entire British monarchy back to 913 A.D. He never speaks German, apart from the occasional curse. But Sadie stays at home, at first raising her daughter, and then puttering around the house, sometimes taking the time to reminisce with her box of photographs and mementos.

As the years go by, Jack adds more items to the list of things needed to become British. But no matter how he tries, he cannot gain access to the one key item that would make him feel fully British -membership in a golf club. In post-war England, no golf club will admit a Jew, and Jack does not want to join a Jewish club. So, he hatches a wild idea: he'll build his own golf club on his own land that he’s bought sight unseen out in the country. And he’ll let anyone join who wants to.

This obsession with British golf courses is an obsession that Sadie does not share, particularly when Jack relocates them to a thatched roof cottage in Dorset to embark on his project. She doesn't want to forget who they are or where they come from. She wants to bake the cakes she used to serve to friends in the old country and reminisce. Now she's stuck in an inhospitable landscape filled with unwelcoming people, watching their bank account shrink as Jack pursues his quixotic, and some would say, worthless dream.

At first I thought this was a pastoral, gentle story about an older immigrant couple trying to make their way in a new place, maybe accompanied by some quirky characters and mildly amusing stories dealing with cultural differences. While it does have these things, this novel possesses something deeper and more meaningful than that. I’ve been trying to put my finger on what this element is – maybe it’s the associations that start out superficial and then change into caring and supportive relationships. Or maybe it’s the predictable storyline that takes a side turn to the unusual with Jack’s efforts to build a golf course with his bare hands. Or maybe that magic element is Sadie’s development into a full bodied person with hopes and dreams and memories, whose confusing story of sadness and contentedness is a realistic one for most readers. Whatever “it” is, it makes for a satisfying poignant book.

I think the ending was a bit rushed, however. That is my only criticism.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

Never Say Never by Elizabeth Waite (2007)
In 1930, the sleepy Hampshire village where Emma Pearson lives with her family is offering rural holidays to orphaned children from London. John and Tommy, the two lads who stay with the Pearsons, become part of the family. Years later, when World War II breaks out, Emma must watch not only her own two girls, but also the boys who are like sons to her, play their parts as dramatic events unfold.

The Lost Garden by Helen Humphries (2002)
London is on fire from the Blitz, and a young woman gardener named Gwen Davis flees from the burning city for the Devon countryside. She has volunteered for the Land Army and is to be in charge of a group of young girls who will be trained to plant food crops on an old country estate where the gardens have fallen into ruin. Also on the estate is a regiment of Canadian soldiers. During this time, Gwen will inspire the girls to restore the estate gardens, fall in love with a soldier, and find her first deep friendship while finding a life that’s worth living.

Remember Me by Trezza Azzopardi (2004)
Determined to be no trouble to anyone, homeless septuagenarian Winnie pursues a young girl who has stolen her suitcase and wig, an endeavor that causes her to evaluate the events that culminated in her current status.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Forgiveness and Reconciliation

How to be an American Housewife
Margaret Dilloway
Putnam, 2010

Shoko is an old woman now but she remembers when she was so young and pretty that men would turn to look at her when she walked down the street. But that was long ago in Japan, before she married an American serviceman and moved to America. Now her heart is failing, probably due to radiation exposure during the Second World War, and she wants more than anything to go see her brother and make things right again. She and her brother have not spoken ever since she married and left Japan, so many years ago.

Shoko and Taro’s parents encouraged Shoko to find an American to marry so she could escape occupied Japan and have a better life. Shoko had many boyfriends, so she brought their pictures to her father and he selected the one she should choose. Taro never forgave Shoko for betraying her country and her family by leaving, and once she got to America, Shoko sometimes believed she had made a terrible mistake. She never could learn the language or the customs, despite the guidance of a book called How to be an American Housewife. She never felt like she fit in, like she was always the outsider. American customs and people were so strange.

But Shoko has an idea. She wants her daughter Sue to go to Japan in her place and try to convince Taro to forgive her. She has saved bits of money over the years to fund such a trip, and to her surprise, Sue agrees to go! She gives Sue a letter to give to her brother, and then it’s Sue’s turn to take over the narrative. Sue’s daughter accompanies her, and they learn many things about their heritage and family history, and this serves to make Sue prouder of her ancestry instead of ashamed of it.

Despite having some early issues with the alternating narratives, I quickly became interested in Shoko’s story. She seems like a cranky old woman now, but after reading about her move to America and the difficulty she had assimilating, I understand that her life was not what she imagined it would be. People were not always nice to Shoko, or her children, but she did the best she could in spite of the cultural and language difficulties. Short chapters may have increased the pace of the book, but I found them to be disruptive to the narratives of Shoko and Sue, and there was no need to build suspense in this type of literary fiction. Some reviewers have remarked about the quick wrap-up ending, but I found it comforting and satisfying even if it was a bit quick and anticlimactic. I am looking forward to more books by this author.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (2009)
Set in the ethnic neighborhoods of Seattle during World War II and Japanese American internment camps of the era, this debut novel tells the heartwarming story of widower Henry Lee, his father, and his first love Keiko Okabe.

The Gift of Rain
by Tan Twan Eng (2008)
In 1939, sixteen-year-old Philip Hutton-the half-Chinese, half-English youngest child of the head of one of Penang's great trading families feels alienated from both the Chinese and British communities. He at last discovers a sense of belonging in his unexpected friendship with Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat. Philip proudly shows his new friend around his adored island, and in return Endo teaches him about Japanese language and culture and trains him in the art and discipline of aikido. But such knowledge comes at a terrible price. When the Japanese savagely invade Malaya, Philip realizes that his mentor and sensei-to whom he owes absolute loyalty-is a Japanese spy. Young Philip has been an unwitting traitor, and must now work in secret to save as many lives as possible, even as his own family is brought to its knees.

Flesh and Blood by Michael Cunningham (1995)
This epic tale of an American family follows three generations of the Stassos clan as it is transformed by ambition, love, and history. Constantine Stassos, a Greek immigrant, marries Mary Cuccio, an Italian-American girl, and they have three children, each fated to a complex life. Susan is oppressed by her beauty and her father's affections; Billy is brilliant, and gay; Zoe is a wild, heedless visionary. As the years pass, their lives unfold in ways that compel them--and their parents--to meet ever greater challenges.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Go Ape!

Ape House
Sara Gruen
Spiegel and Grau, 2010

When an explosion at the Great Ape Language Lab severely injures scientist Isabel Duncan and her special bonobos are recaptured and then sold, Isabel must form connections of the human kind in order to find them.

Alternating chapters (yes, again!) detail the stories of Isabel as she recovers from her illness and John, a reporter who initially covers the story of these unique apes who understand English and communicate via American Sign Language. Isabel has formed a unique bond with her family of bonobos, and she is naturally distraught when she discovers their location and what their new owner is doing to them. John, on the other hand, has his own difficulties when his news story is taken away from him and he finds himself resigning from a prestigious job and moving to Los Angeles. He and his wife are having their own issues, but he finds himself drawn once again to the great apes when a new assignment sends him once again to report on their situation. Isabel and John are then able to reconnect and work together to save the apes from a fate worse than death.

I loved this book. I couldn’t put it down. The plot is unique and compelling and carries the momentum right through to the fascinating ending. Isabel may be a tad obsessive and dramatic, but we can excuse her extremes because of her fierce dedication and determination to help the apes – the only family she has ever known. John is an empathetic and ethical person who tries to do the right thing, but still slips up every once in a while despite his best intentions. I especially loved the relationship he and his wife have; it’s a true love affair that is refreshing to see in a contemporary novel. Put simply: this is a darn good book.


Other novels by this author:
Riding Lessons (2004)
Flying Changes (2005)
Water for Elephants (2006)

Other titles you may enjoy:
Next by Michael Crichton (2006)
Journeys inside the world of bioengineering and genetics, in a provocative novel of near-future science run amok.

The Darkest Evening of the Year by Dean Koontz (2007)
Amy Redwing is the founder of a California organization that rescues abandoned and endangered golden retrievers. Amy risks her life to save Nickie and takes her into her home. The bond between Amy and Nickie is immediate and uncanny. But the instant joy Nickie brings is shadowed by a series of eerie incidents.

A Dog’s Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron (2010)
Searching for his purpose over the course of multiple canine lives, Bailey is reborn as a golden-haired puppy after a tragic death as a stray and shares a loving bond with young Ethan before he again dies and starts over.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Tale Worth Reading

The Widower’s Tale
Julia Glass
Pantheon, 2010

In a quirky historic farmhouse outside Boston, seventy-year-old Percy Darling enjoys a vigorous but solitary life. In order to help his oldest daughter obtain a job, he allows a progressive preschool to remodel and move into his barn. Although he resents the noise and confusion the school brings, he soon realizes that the children and young people have forced him to reconnect with the world. His recent retirement had caused him to become a sort of recluse in the large lonely house. With the constant commotion of people coming and going, Percy comes to regret some of the choices he’s made since his wife’s death three decades ago. He finds that he can no longer remain aloof from his neighbors, his two grown daughters, or, to his own surprise, the joy of falling in love. Meanwhile, Percy's beloved grandson Robert, a premed student at Harvard, has become involved in a subversive green organization that commits destructive “pranks” around prosperous neighborhoods targeting wasteful lifestyles. Though Robert is enlisted as a helper in what sounds like harmless actions, they escalate into harmful and scary attacks, with dire consequences for Robert's family and the people around them.

At first impression, this book is about an older gentleman undergoing a change of life event. Percy is a grumpy yet energetic former librarian, who just wanted to retire in order to read books and think about important things. That events forced him to be more outgoing and personable makes him even grouchier, but it also causes him to feel needed and relevant again. When he falls in love with Sarah, a woman a bit younger, he comes alive again in a way he hadn’t felt since his wife died. Yet, Percy is used to being in charge, the boss, and he doesn’t react very well when things don’t go according to his plan.

I enjoyed witnessing the journey that Percy takes in order to become a more complete human being. I could identify with his newfound feelings of being alive, of intense emotional ups and downs, of connecting once again with the world around him. My only complaint was the alternating chapters with other characters’ voices that added too many subplots and confusion to the main storyline. But in the end, everything tied together nicely, albeit somewhat unhappily, and Percy once again is the main character in a very satisfying novel.


Other titles by this author:
Three Junes (2002)
The Whole World Over (2006)
I See You Everywhere (2008)

Other titles you may enjoy:
Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood (1976)
Joan Foster is the bored wife of a myopic ban-the-bomber. She takes off overnight as Canada's new super poet, pens lurid gothics on the sly, attracts a blackmailing reporter, skids cheerfully in and out of menacing plots, hair-raising traps, passionate trysts, and lands dead and well in Terremoto, Italy.

Roxanna Slade by Reynolds Price (1998)
Roxana Slade, born with the century, looks back from the near present over her long and (seemingly) uneventful life as a wife and mother in a small North Carolina town.

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee (1999)
In a novel set in post-apartheid South Africa, a fifty-two-year-old college professor who has lost his job for sleeping with a student tries to relate to his daughter, Lucy, who works with an ambitious African farmer.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

An Old Bag of Tripe

Enter a Murderer
Ngaio Marsh

St Martin, 1998, 1935

This classic whodunit mystery is the second in the series by Ngaio Marsh. Roderick Alleyn is a detective working for Scotland Yard. His friend, Nigel, is a newspaper reporter who invites Alleyn to a play in which his good friend is starring. One of the cast members is a disagreeable drunk who has rubbed several people the wrong way. As you might expect, this actor gets “accidentally” shot during one of the scenes. Luckily, Alleyn is there to conduct an immediate investigation and everyone in the theater is a suspect.

Ngaio Marsh is considered one of the “crime queens” that wrote mysteries during the thirties and forties. As opposed to Christie, however, Marsh uses quite a bit of slang that was popular in England at the time, and which most modern American readers will have absolutely no idea what it pertains to. I found the detective to be a pompous jerk who ridiculed others while acting smug and self-righteous. Nigel, his dumb sidekick, wasn’t much better. This was a difficult book to read and understand; too bad the experience did not justify the effort.

Some inexplicable quotes from the book:
“You old sausage”
“We’ve got to come all over scientific”
“You couple of boobies”
“Shut your silly face up”
“You fatuous old bag of tripe”
“He’s been the cat’s paw”

And the winner:
“If Diogenes had rolled up against you, he’d have got out of his barrel, filled it with booze and made whoopee.”


Rating Explanation:
I couldn't give it one cupcake because I had to finish the book for a book discussion group.

There are many other books in the Roderick Alleyn Mystery Series. Go to to see the library catalog.

Other authors you may enjoy:
Agatha Christie
Dorothy Sayers
Josephine Tey
Michael Innes

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


Bill Warrington’s Last Chance
James King

Viking, 2010

Bill Warrington has many regrets. Too many, maybe. The past isn’t something he can change, regrets or not, but maybe he can change the future. When Bill learns he has Alzheimer’s, he wants to change things with his children, before it’s too late.

Marcie, Bill’s only daughter has about had it with her daughter, April. April is fifteen and a royal pain in the neck. Marcie is a single parent trying to keep things together, despite the constant roadblocks she gets from April. She is also her father’s primary caregiver and the constant need to check on him, clean up after him, and shop for him and just about worn her out. This is why she is secretly thrilled that April and her father have started spending so much time together. It gives her a break and seems to make them both happy – something she has given up on ever happening.

The reason April and Bill have started spending so much time together is a secret. Bill is teaching April to drive, despite the fact that she is only 15 and has no driver’s permit. April and her grandfather have a pact that they will always be straight and honest with each other, but April suspects her grandfather hasn’t been totally honest with her regarding his plans or why he keeps forgetting who she is. In any event, she is thrilled when he announces one day that they are driving to California, where she hopes to become a singer-songwriter, but the trip turns out to be way more than she bargained for.

There were some problems with this novel:
1. Bill and April are fully fleshed out, but Nick and Mike, the brothers, are just shadows. There is an attempt to give them some depth, but their short back stories don’t really give them any motivation for their behavior. Marcie has a little more to her, but she still feels like half a person.
2. The plot has a good start and builds to a compelling climax and then fizzles out to a dead end, leaving the reader feeling like a popped balloon.
3. The reading experience is enjoyable but forgettable. The characters are unoriginal, the plot is predictable, and the setting is inconsequential. I was sufficiently entertained by the story as I read it, but then I promptly forgot it when I finished.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

Object Lessons by Anna Quindlen (1991)
In this novel about a large Irish-Italian family in the late 1960s, young Maggie Scanlan begins to sense that, beneath the calm, everyday surface of her peaceful suburban life, everything is going mysteriously wrong especially during one summer that changes their lives.

Brass Ankle Blues by Rachel Harper (2006)
Embarking on a season at her family's summer house with her father and an estranged cousin, multi-racial teen Nellie Kincaid encounters first love, shifting family loyalties, and an emerging sense of self that raises her awareness of her diverse heritage.

My Latest Grievance by Elinor Lipman (2006)
Chafing under the claustrophobic care of her liberal parents, Frederica Hatch finds her snug world transformed by Laura Lee French, a new college dorm mother who had once been married to Frederica's earnest and unglamorous father.