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Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Orphanmaster

The Orphanmaster
Jean Zimmerman
Viking, 2012

Blandine von Couvering is now 22 years old, but she was orphaned at a young age and pretty much raised herself. That’s how she came to know and love Orphanmaster Aet Visser, who was like a father to her. In seventeenth-century New Amsterdam, orphans were put under the care of an orphanmaster, who ensured they were taken care of by foster families and safeguarded any inheritance the child may have left after the death of his or her parents. Blandine is now a “she-merchant” and does pretty well for herself buying and selling furs. Most of the traders are so surprised to be competing against a woman that she can usually make a good deal before they realize what has happened.

When an eight year old African American orphan goes missing, nobody seems to care, so Blandine enlists the help of the Orphanmaster to find out what happened. Before they know it, little Piddy’s body turns up dead, and then more orphans are abducted and killed. One manages to escape, however, and spreads the story of a very tall half-man, half-beast creature that eats its prey. This sets off a panic in New Amsterdam. Parents keep their children inside where they can watch them and accusations start to fly. Among the accused: the Orphanmaster himself, who is shocked that anyone would think he could ever hurt his baby ducklings.

Meanwhile, a stranger shows up in town: Edward Drummond, who is masquerading as a businessman but is really an undercover spy hunting down traitors to the British monarchy. Blandine finds that she is attracted to Drummond despite the fact that she is practically engaged to the town’s eligible bachelor. The two join forces to protect the Aet’s name and find out who is terrorizing the town, even if it means that they become the target of the strange creature themselves.

While I enjoyed the historical details and setting of this novel, I found the plot to be quite complicated and the crossing of genres somewhat confusing. Is it a romance? A mystery? A mysterious romantic historical fiction? There are several plot lines to keep track of – and don’t get me started on all the names! (It was all Dutch to me, she said jokingly.) The main characters are intriguing and unpredictable, but I guessed the bad guy about half way through, despite the numerous red herrings scattered along the way. I also found myself a little bored with the drama of it all, and couldn’t wait to get to the end. Not a good feeling.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld (2006)
In 1909, as a sadistic killer stalks Manhattan's wealthiest heiresses, Sigmund Freud is called in by American analyst Dr. Stratham Younger to assist him in interviewing Nora Acton, a hysterical survivor of the killer who can recall nothing about the attack.

The Queen of Bedlam by Robert McCammon (2007)
Investigating New York City's first serial killer in 1702, magistrate's clerk Matthew Corbert contemplates working with an elderly asylum resident who may hold the key to the killer's identity, in a case that is further challenged by the murderer's dark designs for the city.

The Alienist by Caleb Carr (1994)
In 1896, the New York reform police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt asks an upper class police reporter and a psychologist to investigate the serial killer of boy prostitutes, but crime bosses oppose their questions

Friday, May 25, 2012

Contents May Have Shifted

Contents May Have Shifted
Pam Houston
Norton, 2012

Narrator Pam, not to be confused with author Pam but seemingly very much like her, travels a lot. Her day job is teaching writing at a California college, and she must use every school break she gets to fly somewhere else. The planes she takes vary from jumbo jets to single propeller puddle-jumpers, and her flight experiences vary as well – sometimes dangerously so. Pam is a scattered narrator, who explains in many short chapters that bounce around in time that she is searching for a committed relationship that will be strong enough to keep her at home. Recovering from a hard breakup, she is now with an artist who shares her love for travel but has his own baggage: a child with a controlling mother who causes problems. When it gets too much for Pam, she goes somewhere else, or gets a massage, or talks to one of her friends to get a more realistic perspective. Pam has lots of friends who are much wiser than she is.

This is a scattered and untraditional method of novel writing but an effective one. The reader may need a few chapters under her belt to get to know Pam, but to know her is to love her. Whether she is escaping her present life or looking for a new one, we understand that she is searching for something bigger than herself to make some order out of chaos. She has a remarkable and beautiful way of describing her life, unsettled as it may be that makes the reader envy not only her ability to write so lyrically but her enthusiasm for travel as well.


Other novels by this author:
Waltzing the Cat (1998)
Sight Hound (2005)

Other titles you may enjoy:

A Risk Worth Taking by Robin Pilcher (2004)
Laid off in the wake of the dot-com industry collapse, Dan Porter finds himself increasingly estranged from his clothing designer wife and three teenage children and considers implementing drastic changes in his life.

The Ha-Ha by Dave King (2005)
Rendered unable to speak, read, or write after a Vietnam War injury thirty years earlier, Howard Kapostash feels trapped by his disability until his high school sweetheart, recently forced into rehab, asks him to care for her nine-year-old son.

Vibrator by Mari Akasaki (2007)
Following a chance encounter with a truck driver one night, Rei Hayakawa, a troubled young journalist, embarks on a journey through the snowy wastelands of northern Japan. Together the unlikely pair explores their sexuality and their demons, and the memories that compel them to keep moving.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The World We Found

The World We Found
Thrity Umrigar
Harper, 2012

Armaiti has been living in America for many years. Originally from India, she emigrated after college, married and divorced an American man and now has a college aged daughter. She has recently received a sobering diagnosis of terminal cancer. She rejects the slim chance that receiving treatment will extend her life and instead focuses her attention on reuniting with old friends for one last visit before she dies. Laleh, Kavita, and Nishta live in Bombay. In college the four women were inseparable as political activists for a reformed India. Today, they barely keep in touch and Nishta, in fact, has not been heard from in years. Laleh is now married to her college sweetheart and quite wealthy, despite their youthful communistic leanings. Kavita is a successful architect and trying to be open about her once hidden sexual orientation. Nishta married into a fundamentalist Muslim family and her husband strictly controls her activities.

Armaiti has her own challenges to deal with as her illness progresses and she becomes more dependent on her daughter and ex-husband. She has many regrets that surface as she contemplates the end of her life, but in the end nothing matters as much as seeing her old friends again. The four women were idealistic in their youth and now must reconcile past hopes and dreams with the practical realities of middle age, much like the divided India that is portrayed in this novel. As the women struggle with the memories of their college years, they realize they have some unresolved issues that must be laid to rest before they can say goodbye to each other one last time.


Other novels by this author:
Bombay Time (2001)
The Space between Us (2005)
If Today be Sweet (2007)
The Weight of Heaven (2009)

Other titles you may enjoy:

The 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.

First Friends by Marcia Willett (2006)
Life-long best friends, both married to naval officers, Kate Webster and Cassandra Wivenhoe find their lives, families, and marriages thrown into turmoil by Cassandra's infidelities.

Dreaming Water by Gail Tsukiyama (2002)
Cate and her adult daughter, Hana, who has Werner's Syndrome, a disease which speeds aging to twice the normal rate, find their lives changed irrevocably by the arrival of Hana's childhood friend, Laura, and her two energetic daughters.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Flea Circus

Flea Circus: a brief bestiary of grief
Mandy Keifetz
New Issues/Western Michigan University, 2012.

Izzy has a hard time coping with her grief after her entomologist lover Tim commits suicide by falling down a tenement airshaft. As she works through her loss with the help of another entomologist, Pudge Goroguchi, she goes to her banker job and also helps out at Tim’s brother’s bar while doing mathematical equations and wondering if she’s pregnant. Tim left behind a flea circus, so Izzy befriends Pudge, who also loves fleas, as a fill-in lover. As each short chapter unfolds, the reader will either delight in the “whip-smart narration,” like one reviewer did – or become frustrated with the too-witty urban hipster language that goes nowhere and does little to move the plot forward, like I did.

I started this slim volume with high expectations but quickly grew tired of the clever writing and lack of plot. I felt like Izzy was trying too hard to impress the reader with her smartness and her hipness. She did not feel like a real person to me. Reviewers used words like “enthralling,” “hilarious,” and “a must for fans of literary fiction” to describe this book. This reviewer, on the other hand, believes other terms, like “tedious,” “nonsensical,” and “not worth the paper it’s printed on” would be more accurate.

Needless to say, I did not finish it.


Other titles you may enjoy:

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides (1993)
The narrator and his friends piece together the events that led up to suicides of the Lisbon girls, brainy Therese, fastidious Mary, ascetic Bonnie, libertine Lux, and saintly Cecilia.

The Surface of Earth by Reynolds Price (1995)
Eva Kendal, 16, elopes with her Latin teacher, twice her age, in 1903 and begins a dysfunctional family line in North Carolina.

Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson (1981)
Ruth, a young girl struggling to overcome haunting family memories in a town which will not let her forget, gradually grows close to Sylvie, the sister of her dead mother.

Friday, May 4, 2012


Lauren Groff
Hyperion, 2012

Bit Stone is five years old. He and his mother and father live in Arcadia, a commune in New York State, during the turbulent sixties and seventies. The commune was developed to be a utopian society by a charismatic musician. The major concepts of the commune were free love, of course, but shared work and shared resources were also mandated. Bit was special because he was the first of many, many children born at Arcadia. The leader along with the rest of the adults always considered Bit to be representative of the commune’s origins, and so he and his family were part of the inner circle.

Bit’s mother suffered from seasonal depression and spent much of her time in bed until she finally got some medical help. Bit’s father worked very hard restoring an old house that was on the property until he was severely injured. Bit spends his time with the other children in the commune, going to the school and helping with chores as needed. As he and Arcadia grow older, things change. The commune’s leadership becomes divided as they debate issues such as allowing outsiders to join the group, drug use, sexual norms, and financial hardship. Food has always been scarce, but now that so many people have invaded Arcadia, there are more mouths to feed and fewer hands willing to work in the fields or the kitchen.

The story progresses to a future that becomes bleaker than Arcadia’s idealistic leaders could ever have imagined. The adult Bit discovers that his childhood was not what he remembered, and he must struggle to deal with the ghosts that have remained. As a pandemic spreads through the world, the only place that he can find to safely shield his family is the deserted place that used to be Arcadia, which is a shell of its former busy, productive, and sometimes dangerous self.

Arcadia is a mesmerizing and rewarding reading experience. As adults we can see the flaws with Arcadia: the selfishness; the unfair gender roles; the poverty. But Bit only sees the joys: acres of land to roam; many nurturing adults to care for him; children to serve as surrogate siblings. In theory, the communal life would solve many societal problems, but we all know that theories don’t often hold true when confronted with human beings and their many faults. Still, it is fascinating to see Arcadia’s rise and fall through Bit’s eyes, at first innocent and hopeful and then not so much. Like Bit, we really want Arcadia to succeed, and, like Bit, we are somehow so disappointed when it doesn’t.


Other novels by this author:
The Monsters of Templeton (2008)

Other titles you may enjoy:

Faith Fox by Jane Gardam (2003)
Emotionally abandoned by her father and maternal grandmother when her birth results in her mother's death, young Faith Fox is raised by an unlikely group, including the owners of a commune and her bickering paternal grandparents.

Summer of the Redeemers by Carolyn Haines (1994)
Emotionally abandoned by her father and maternal grandmother when her birth results in her mother's death, young Faith Fox is raised by an unlikely group, including the owners of a commune and her bickering paternal grandparents.

The Limits of Enchantment by Graham Joyce (2005)
Growing up in the 1960s under the tutelage of unconventional midwife Mammy, Fern Cullen finds the people of their small English village rallying against them when a patient dies, forcing Fern to turn to former adversaries for support.