Search This Blog

Monday, November 29, 2010

Hello, Fellow Fiction Fanatics:

Miss me? I’ve been absent from this blog for a while. My deepest apologies, but it’s not really my fault. I was trying to slog my way through today’s blog entry: World and Town by Gish Jen. And then the holiday happened, which entailed making four pies, one turkey and enough dressing to feed 11 people.

You will be glad to know that after I ate several Thanksgiving dinners that couldn’t be beat, I had time to settle down and finish not only today’s featured title but two other books as well. Hallelujah! That means you won’t have to wait too long for the next blog entry!

Thanks for your patience. Stay tuned for today's feature presentation:

World and Town
Gish Jen
Knopf, 2010
386 pages
(but it seemed like more)

Two years after burying her husband and best friend, 68-year-old Hattie Kong moves to a small New England town. It takes her a while but she is finally fitting in and making friends with the local residents. One day she notices a Cambodian family has moved into a dilapidated trailer next door to her, and she can’t help but watch their daily goings-on through her kitchen window. After being acquainted with the family, she discovers they are having problems and she tries to organize help for them, only to be rebuffed and rejected. Instead, she notices, the local fundamentalist church has taken the family under their wing, providing guidance, food and education, but Hattie is not so sure this type of help will keep the family together and out of trouble. Meanwhile, her Chinese relatives are having a string a bad luck and keep pestering Hattie to send back her parents’ bones so they can be buried properly.

Have you ever noticed that the book with all the positive reviews is the one that’s hardest to get through? However, I did finish it – FINALLY. This is a very dense book, with lots of description and long sentences. The point of view moves around a bit, but it usually focuses on Hattie, a very nice older woman who is lonely and alone except for her dogs. She reallywants to help the family next door, but she is Chinese and they don’t trust her because of their past experiences with China. I think there are too many subplots in this novel to make it flow smoothly. It’s easy to get the characters mixed up between the subplots, and the added switches between the present and the past are also hard to keep straight. It’s very slow going, but people who like descriptive, character-driven, literary novels may enjoy this more than I did.


Other books by this author:
Typical American (1991)
Mona in the Promised Land (1996)
Who’s Irish and Other Stories (1999)
The Love Wife (2004) – I very much enjoyed this title!

Other titles you may enjoy:

A Week in Winter by Marcia Willett (2002)
When Maudie Todhunter, the elderly owner of a Corwall farmhouse, decides to sell the family homestead, old family secrets threaten to come to the surface.

Brother and Sister by Joanna Trollope (2004)
David and Nathalie, adopted and raised by the same parents decide to begin a painful journey to find their birth mothers, affecting their spouses, children, and co-workers.

Bingo by Rita Mae Brown (1988)
Two elderly widows, Julia and Louise Hunsenmeir, fight over the same man while Julia's daughter, Nickel, faces her own battles to save the local newspaper from corporate takeover.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Can you hear me now?

By Nightfall
Michael Cunningham
FSG, 2010

Peter and Rebecca Harris have settled into a comfortable mid-life with their careers as an art dealer and editor in Manhattan. Their only daughter is in college, and while she is experiencing some issues with her choices and her parents, everything seems to be on an even keel for Peter. He is happy with his career and his wife and his life -- until Rebecca’s brother Mizzy shows up.

Mizzy, short for Mistake, was born late in his parents’ lives and was a surprise. As the youngest of three sisters, Mizzy was raised spoiled and coddled and has done nothing with his life, which is fast approaching 40. He also has a history of drug abuse, which makes it debatable whether Peter and Rebecca should take him in – again. After much discussion, they decide to let him stay for a while, but his presence is confusing to Peter. He finds himself attracted to this younger male version of his wife and these conflicting feelings make things uncomfortable between them. In fact, Peter is having a sort of midlife crisis. He thought he was settling into middle age easily, but his career, his friends, his wife, and his daughter are causing him concern, maybe even worry. He’s not sure what he wants or what he should do.

Peter does a lot of thinking and self-reflection as he tries to figure things out. In fact, he does so much thinking and self-reflection that I lost patience with him about a third of the way through the book. A long time ago when I was in college, I worked as a proofreader for the school newspaper. The faculty advisor was also one of the college librarians and since I worked at the library, he and I were friends of sorts. As I proofed a particular article, Mr. Koehler told me that he didn’t care for the writer’s style because it was “mental masturbation.” In other words, the writer was more interested in writing for his own sake than sharing any information or ideas with the reading public.

In many ways, this term can be used to describe Peter. He muses (or obsesses) about everything:
· Why his daughter is giving him the cold shoulder
· Life in the city and how great it was
· Art collectors and/or art collecting
· Whether he should fire his two helpers
· Should he tell his wife about Mizzy’s drug use
· Was he gay if he was attracted to a man
· What was Mizzy thinking?
· What was Mizzy thinking now? What was Mizzy doing now?
· And now? What about now?

I finished the book but could have cared less what happened.


Other books by this author:
At Home at the End of the World (1990)
Flesh and Blood (1995)
The Hours (1998)
Specimen Days (2005)

Other titles you may enjoy:

All He Ever Wanted by Anita Shreve (2003)
Years after escaping from a hotel fire and encountering an elusive woman, whom he subsequently married and divorced, a man travels from New England to Florida by train and remembers the relationship.

That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo (2009)
The lives of Jack and Joy Griffin always seem to come back to Cape Cod, where they honeymooned, as they experience the ups and downs of life, including the deaths of Jack's parents, the marriage of their daughter, and Jack and Joy's divorce.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Lost and Bound

Antonya Nelson
Bloomsbury, 2010

Catherine and Oliver, young wife and older entrepreneurial husband, are negotiating their difference in age and a plethora of well-concealed secrets. Oliver, now in his sixties, is a serial adulterer and has just fallen giddily in love yet again. Catherine, seemingly placid and content, has ghosts of a past she scarcely remembers. When Catherine's long-forgotten high school friend dies and leaves Catherine the guardian of her teenage daughter, that past comes rushing back. As Oliver manages his new love, and Catherine her new charge and darker past, local news reports turn up the volume on a serial killer who has reappeared after years of quiet, causing everyone to be just a little bit on edge.

This quiet little book at first appears to be contemplative and reflective. Perhaps the reader expects lots of description and too little dialogue. It actually proved to be more interesting and compelling than I expected. Don’t get the wrong idea: it wasn’t so fascinating that I couldn’t put it down, but it wasn’t boring, like the cover implies. However, I quite forgot what it was about two days after I finished it -- I guess it wasn’t as good as I remembered. The premise is not so unique: older husband is a cheater; younger wife finds she doesn’t much care. He is giddy with new love; she is preoccupied with the news that she is now the guardian of a girl she has never met. Orphaned teenager is confused, grieving, and feeling abandoned. All very typical and perhaps even stereotypical.

So, what made this book different? I’m not sure. The tone was quiet, reserved and distant. I didn’t really care about the characters or the outcome, but something appealed to me. The writing was spare and the book short. It seemed that each word was carefully chosen and placed in exactly the perfect spot. The experience of reading was rewarding even if the characters, plot and ending were uneventful. It’s almost as if the language took over the rest of the elements of the story, making them unimportant in the whole. It’s an interesting effect, and worth the effort.


Other books by this author:
The Expendables: stories (1990)
Talking in Bed (1996)
Nobody’s Girl (1998)
Living to Tell (2000)
Female Trouble: a collection of short stories (2002)
Nothing Right: stories (2009)

Other books you may enjoy:
One Foot in Eden by Ron Rash (2002)
Will Alexander is the sheriff in a small town in southern Appalachia, and he knows that the local thug Holland Winchester has been murdered. The only thing is the sheriff can find neither the body nor someone to attest to the killing. Simply, almost elementally told through the voices of the sheriff, a local farmer, his beautiful wife, their son, and the sheriff's deputy, this story reveals infidelity, jealousy and betrayal in 1950s South Carolina.

In the Heart of the Canyon by Elisabeth Hyde (2009)
A rafting trip through the Grand Canyon changes the lives of everyone on board, including a jaded guide; a septuagenarian couple who know they will never make this trip again; and a teenager and her mother, who will face the most daunting journey of all.

Any Bitter Thing by Monica Wood (2005)
After surviving a near-fatal accident, thirty-year-old Lizzy Mitchell faces a long road to recovery. She remembers little about the days she spent in and out of consciousness, save for one thing: She saw her beloved deceased uncle, Father Mike, the man who raised her in the rectory of his Maine church until she was nine, at which time she was abruptly sent away to boarding school. Was Father Mike an angel, a messenger from the beyond, or something more corporeal? Though her troubled marriage and her broken body need tending, Lizzy knows she must uncover the details of her accident-and delve deep into events of twenty years before, when whispers and accusations forced a good man to give up the only family he had.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A good Place to be

The Faithful Place
Tana French
Viking, 2010

Planning to run away with his girlfriend to London in the hopes of escaping poverty, Frank concludes he has been dumped when Rosie fails to join him and is astonished when Rosie's suitcase and evidence of foul play are discovered more than twenty years later.

This is third book in the Dublin Murder Squad series, but I hadn’t read the first two titles and didn’t notice anything missing in this one. Frank is not on the murder squad; he works undercover. It appears to me that each book in the series focuses on a different character who investigates the current case. Frank is an interesting choice with a compelling back story. He and his girlfriend wanted to escape their families when they were teens. Rosie’s father didn’t approve of Frank and Frank’s family had an abusive father. But when Frank went to their designated meeting spot, he found a note from Rosie that insinuated she had left without him. For twenty years, he assumed she had rejected him and this blow colored every decision he made since then. Rosie’s friends and family also assumed she had escaped their small neighborhood, some with hope that she made a life for herself, some with regret because they missed her so much. Imagine their shock and dismay when her remains turn up so many years later. Everyone who knew her had to revise their beliefs and assumptions regarding her disappearance and subsequent life after.

This literary mystery has a strong sense of place. The neighborhood is close knit and has its own code. Family life means sacrificing privacy, freedom, and sometimes a personal life. Everyone comes home for Sunday dinner and no one snitches on anyone, no matter what. Good jobs are scarce and many are on the dole. I found all of this fascinating, including the special vocabulary and dialect from the Faithful Place neighborhood. This literary mystery is chock full of characters with personality and depth and motivation, but the mystery may be a little weak for true mystery fans. Even I could guess the killer before the ending of the book, but it didn’t matter in the long run. There was enough suspense for me even without the mystery element.


Other books by this author:
In the Woods (2007) – Dublin Murder Squad #1
The Likeness (2008) – Dublin Murder Squad #2

Other titles you may like:
Oblivion by Peter Abrahams (2005)
Waking up in a hospital with much of his memory missing, Nick Petrov, a private investigator renowned for his ability to reclaim stolen children, pursues clues about his own life and discovers a link to a haunting murder case.

First Deadly Sin by Lawrence Sanders (1973)
A well-dressed man stalks the high-class neighborhoods of New York City. He is armed with an ice ax. His victims are strangers. And one cop, Captain Ed Delaney, must solve a series of bizarre murders that defy logic.

Bones to Ashes by Kathy Reichs (2007)
Discovering the skeleton of a young girl in the neighborhood of a childhood best friend who had gone missing thirty years earlier, Tempe Brennan investigates suspicions that victim and her friend are one and the same.