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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Domestic Violets

Domestic Violets
Matthew Norman
Harper Perennial, 2011

Tom Violet, the son of a famous and successful writer, has struggled his whole life. Not only does he want to be a better husband and father than his own father was, he has writing aspirations himself but lacks the confidence to do anything about it. Instead, he works for a soulless corporate entity producing meaningless press releases designed to help other companies improve in a vague nonproductive way. Tom has a wife who works in academia, a five-year-old daughter, and a neurotic dog. He is also suffering from a midlife crisis of sorts. His assistant is young and attractive and idolizes his every move, and Tom suspects it would take very little for him to do something he would very much regret later. An extramarital affair would be so much like something his father would do – and he is not someone Tom wants to emulate. At all. Especially now that the famous writer has shown up on his doorstep, suitcase in hand. Wife Number 4 has discovered his latest dalliance and threw him out of the house. Tom really doesn’t want that to happen to him. What a cliché his father has become, especially now that just want the Pulitzer Prize.

While Tom resents his father, Tom really would like to be like him, too – at least the famous writer part. He has been working feverishly on his own novel, late at night and has shown it to his junior copywriter assistant, who naturally gushes on and on about it. He has also shown it to his wife, who takes it with her on her out of state conference, promising not to call until she has finished reading it. Meanwhile, Tom’s daughter shares with Tom that Mommy has a special friend she meets at the gym. Tom is immediately suspicious and discovers that his wife’s conference is for two people only, and this other guy is one of the people. While he’s trying to figure out how to deal with his wife’s possible infidelity, his stepfather calls to say that Tom’s mother has left him, and could Tom please try to talk her into coming back home? Oh, and the president of the company that Tom works for has offered him a promotion with a big raise, and Tom now has to decide whether he wants to be a soulless corporate hack permanently, or at least until he does something stupid at work and gets himself fired like he has fantasized about every day since he started working there.

Some may call this novel a dark comedy, but I think it’s just real life, albeit real life portrayed in a very humorous way. Tom has real problems, to be sure, but he just can’t help thinking funny things while he’s contemplating all the ways his life has gone wrong. Sometimes it’s just fun to read about other people’s situations and not worry about your own for a while, and if you can laugh along the way, all the better.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

Captives by Todd Hasak-Lowy (2008)
Disaffected and angry screenwriter Daniel Bloom finds that his revenge fantasy about a nameless assassin who is taking down evil corporate executives and politicians is becoming all too real.

Rude Behavior by Dan Jenkins (1998) Billy Clyde Puckett--"good ol' boy," former star halfback, and broadcaster--hits on a scheme to secure a new NFL franchise team.

Grub by Elise Blackwell (2007)
A novel of literary New York follows the lives of a cast of characters including editors, writers, and their friends over a five year period.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Bird House

The Bird House
Kelly Simmons
Washington Square Press, 2011

Ann Biddle is 70 years old and a widow who has started to forget things. It may be little things, like the location of her purse or a lunch date with a friend, but despite her best efforts, she can’t forget things that happened forty years ago. Her grandchild, Ellie, has a school assignment about her family history that renews Ann’s relationship with her only grandchild, her son, and his wife, Tinsley. Tinsley is overprotective of Ellie, perhaps more so because she knows that Ann’s daughter died many years ago when she was only four years old. Ann has always blamed herself for her death.

Prompted by Ellie’s questions about the past, Ann is forced to relive some of the life-changing events that occurred when she was a young mother: a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment; a school reunion that reconnected her with an old boyfriend; and her struggle to deal with a difficult child. When she told Ellie about the cancer recurring, Tinsley objected to the disclosure and started limiting their visits. Meanwhile Ellie has been sharing her observations about Tinsley’s special friendship with another man, and Ann decides to use that knowledge as leverage to see her granddaughter. Then Ann’s old boyfriend reconnects after many years, and she struggles with the idea of pursuing a relationship with him now that she has been alone for so long.

Although the cover of this book may cause readers to assume it is a heartwarming story of an elderly woman and her family, it is anything but. Ann is a mean and manipulative woman who threatens her daughter-in-law in order to get what she wants – a relationship with her granddaughter. And yet, after learning about her past sorrows and hardships, perhaps we can understand how she came to be this way. Her husband was not the most sympathetic of men; her daughter who died obviously had some emotional issues; and her approaching dementia could explain some of her personality changes. I found this book to be deceptively complex, thought-provoking and disturbing to read. At first I was sympathetic to Ann’s problems, but the more I got into the story the more I suspected that Ann’s issues probably stemmed from her own unhappiness with her marriage and role as a stay-at-home mother. It was hard to like Ann, but I still admired her courage and daring in order to finally get what she wanted while she still had the mental and physical abilities to enjoy them.


Other novels by this author:
Standing Still (2008)

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Little House by Philippa Gregory (1996)
Giving up her job as a reporter for a mediocre radio station, Ruth Cleary becomes pregnant and moves to Bath, only to become lonely and depressed and find that her mother-in-law is beginning to control and manipulate her life.

Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah (2010)
Reunited when their beloved father falls ill, sisters Meredith and Nina find themselves under the shadow of their disapproving mother, whose painful history is hidden behind her rendition of a Russian fairy tale told to the sisters in childhood.

Life’s a Beach by Claire Cook (2007)
Dreaming of becoming an artist while living above her parents' garage, forty-one-year-old Ginger pursues a relationship with a commitment-phobic man and babysits her sister's kids while overseeing her eccentric family's descent into dysfunctional chaos.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Art of Fielding

The Art of Fielding
Chad Harbach
Little, Brown, 2011

When Henry Skrimshander is recruited by Mike Schwartz to play baseball at Westish College, no one, least of all Mike, would fully appreciate or understand how much one person could change the lives of five other people, including Mike himself. Henry is a shortstop of phenomenal ability, but he is a social misfit who understands his own failings and is refreshingly modest about his talent. Mike is his mentor and his coach, but Henry’s bible for all things in baseball as well as life is a book called The Art of Fielding. The Art of Fielding is more than a book about baseball; Henry finds that its wise philosophy addresses most problems off the field as well as on it.

Unfortunately, Henry’s book has little to offer him when a routine throw goes off course and wounds Henry’s roommate, causing Henry to have a confidence crisis of epic proportions. The college team is in the middle of a championship season, and major team scouts have been nosing around at the games. Rumor has it that they are interested in Henry, but his bad throw has him spooked and his performance is not good. Meanwhile, Henry’s roommate’s injury has been the catalyst that allows the college president to finally act on his infatuation that he has been indulging himself with for the past several months. The president’s estranged daughter, Pella, shows up unexpectedly during these events with the news that she is divorcing her husband; then she and Mike find themselves in a complicated on again-off again relationship that confuses them both.

If this sounds complicated, it is, but in a thoroughly delightful way. You know a book is totally captivating when you think about it constantly; you pine for it when you aren’t reading it; and you totally wish you could just climb into the world the author has created and actually live the story along with the characters. I wanted to put my arm around Henry and be there for him as he suffered through his estrangement from Mike and his team; I wanted to tell President Affenlight that he was behaving in a self-destructive manner that would only hurt those he loved; I wanted Mike and Pella to be open and honest with each other and fall in love. I wanted the Westish College world to be my world – but I had to be happy with my all too brief time as an observer of these fragile, brave and loveable people.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Chosen by Chaim Potok (1967)
A baseball game between Jewish schools is the catalyst that starts a bitter rivalry between two boys and their fathers.

Battle Creek by Scott Lasser (1999)
A man who has spent his adult life juggling the roles of coach to an amateur baseball team, father to his estranged son, and caretaker to his own disapproving father, finds his life coming apart at the seams when, during one single season, his pitcher loses his arm, his son drifts further away, and he learns his father is dying of cancer.

A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989)
Owen Meany hits a foul ball while playing baseball in the summer of 1953 that kills his best friend's mother, an accident that Owen is sure is the result of divine intervention.