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Sunday, October 22, 2017

Chris Bohjalian, THE GUEST ROOM

This is certainly a disturbing book. The premise: a wealthy man, husband/father of a daughter, in Bronxville, NYC (a bedroom community for Manhattan; much of the action takes place very close to where I used to live) agrees to throw his younger brother a bachelor party, including two strippers. Except they're sex slaves, and one kills the two Russian handlers who are there at the party. Told in alternating chapters, third-person POV Richard and first-person Alexandria (one of the women), it's a compelling social comment about the white slave trade and how its violence can intrude so quickly (because it's just not that far away, even in Bronxville). The plot moves quickly from point to point. My difficulty was that there was not much (if any) character development arc; people remained largely unchanged, with the exception, perhaps, of his daughter who has her eyes opened to a horrible reality of our world.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Amor Towles, RULES OF CIVILITY

I adored this book, stayed up until all hours, two nights in a row, reading it, and would put it in my top 5 for the year. Narrated in the first person by Katey Kontent, the daughter of Russian immigrants, reflecting back on her time in 1938 New York City, when she had one foot in the world of the absurdly wealthy and the other in the world of working-class girls with brains. How can you not love a book that has this on its first page: "In the 1950s, America had picked up the globe by the heels and shaken the change from its pockets. Europe had become a poor cousin--all crests and no tablesettings. ... True, the Communists were out there, somewhere, but with Joe McCarthy in the grave and no one on the Moon, for the time being the Russians just skulked across the pages of spy novels." It has references to Prufrock, Great Expectations, A Room with a View (among others ... but really, three of my favorite works of English literature EVER). Clever, evocative, beautifully written. I've already ordered his next, A Gentleman in Moscow.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Tracy Kidder, MOUNTAINS BEYOND MOUNTAINS: THE QUEST OF DR. PAUL FARMER, A MAN WHO WOULD CURE THE WORLD

I found this book both compelling and eye-opening. I knew nothing of Paul Farmer (M.D., Harvard), contagious diseases specialist; nor about the politics and misguided US intervention in Haiti, where he began his work in one of the poorest areas; nor about the politics of medicine and pharmaceuticals and the WHO and UN; nor about how diseases evolve resistance to first-line antibiotics. Tracy Kidder (the author) writes himself into the book as a "ordinary person" asking questions that "ordinary people" would ask, particularly along the lines of, With so much poverty and disease, and so much working against you, how do you keep on? Farmer emerges as something between a brilliant renegade and a humble saint; I found myself admiring his perseverance and sheer capacity for work. (There is a long catalog of his publications at the end.) My gripes are small: sometimes the reported dialogs between Kidder and Farmer feel circuitous and just puzzling, even after a couple of rereadings; and sometimes the episodes seem a bit too "pat." But all in all, an important and informative book.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Susan Elia MacNeal, THE PARIS SPY, A MAGGIE HOPE MYSTERY

One of my favorite things about the Maggie Hope mysteries are the historical tidbits that feel like M&Ms in the ice cream. Like the fact that Le Figaro, the French newspaper, which takes its name from The Marriage of Figaro, finds its slogan in that same work: Without the freedom to criticize, there is no true praise. And the fact that Coco Chanel had a Nazi lover. And that the clocks in Paris were made to run on Berlin time. But the ice cream itself is rich, too--by which I mean the stakes of the book are high from the start, with one of the SOE agents captured and on the verge of being tortured. She kills herself to protect what she knows, but the question that drives the book is, Who betrayed her; who is the mole? And though the reader suspects by the middle of the novel, it's like watching a train wreck, as we hope Maggie figures it out in time to save herself and her sister. My quibbles with the book are the way a lot of backstory--including an astonishing number of love interests--gets dropped in, in synopsis; and for me, some of the plot points hang together a bit too neatly. But still, it's a fun, interesting, fast-paced and well-researched read.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Judy Reene Singer, IN THE SHADOW OF ALABAMA

The story of a 53-year-old woman excavating her father's traumatizing past--a stint as the Jewish supervisor in charge of an all-black Housekeeping Crew for planes in WWII--by way of interviews with one of the men who served under him. At the end of the book, in a section, "How this book came to be," the author explains that the book is largely autobiographical; this story is her father's story. The historical sections, which are compelling, reflect a world that is inhumane and brutal in its racism; but Rachel's story, about how she can't commit to David who loves her, how she pushes people away because she never learned what love is, how she refuses a therapist's help, how she cruelly refuses to empathize with an abused horse, felt flat and too pat to me. I know I was supposed to feel for Rachel, with her cold and embittered father, her worn-out and disaffected mother, her sister who can only overeat and grab belongings to fill the hole of lovelessness inside her. But I found myself impatient with Rachel; she seems to have insights throughout and yet purposefully remains stuck in her behavior, and so her sudden revelation and change at the end seemed, to me, unearned. I did like much of the writing; one of my favorite lines: "[Nature] can take a heart that has lived like an empty barrel, echoing angrily with noise from the past, and fill it with hope. Love, even."

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Laura Cumming, THE VANISHING VALAZQUEZ: A 19TH-CENTURY BOOKSELLER'S OBSESSION WITH A LOST MASTERPIECE

As other reviewers have noted, this book holds at least three interrelated, mirroring stories: that of John Snare, who believed he had purchased a lost Valazquez when everyone else insisted it was a Van Dyck and who lost his family and his fortune defending it; Valazquez himself, who painted himself into the masterpiece *Las Meninas*, where there is represented both a mirror and a canvas; and Cumming (the author) who is retracing/mirroring John Snare's path, partly as an historian and art critic and partly, she admits, as a response to the death of her father (a painter) and her overwhelming sense of loss. At times I felt the book got a little hot and breathless over what is, at bottom, a relatively uncomplicated story; but I enjoyed it and learned a lot about painters and Valazquez, and I greatly admire the amount of research she did.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Hanya Yanagihara, A LITTLE LIFE

This is perhaps the most painful book I have ever read. It's beautifully written. Yanagihara traces the tiniest shades of emotion and thought, of interactions between characters, precisely and without getting overly writerly. The book begins as a story of four young men who leave a Massachusetts college for New York City. But it shifts fairly early into a deep delve into the traumatic past of one of the four, Jude St. Francis; and the other three characters largely recede into the background, except insofar as they relate to Jude (they love him, they paint and draw him, they're envious of him, etc.). Still, Jude's character is so well done that it's a wholly compelling read.
However (TOTAL SPOILER ALERT), the delve backwards reveals a harrowing childhood (like therapy, we get the worst and most deeply buried last) that includes being abandoned beside a dumpster, being rejected for adoption, continual sexual exploitation, a sadistic doctor, (and yes, there's more), all of which leads to Jude's self-abuse as an adult. It's just a really, really hard read. I confess that after the second passage about him cutting himself with a razor, I had to start skipping paragraphs. They were so graphic and perfectly described that they were putting images in my head that I couldn't set aside.
In some ways, the most heart-rending parts for me were those in which Jude interacted with all these kind people around him and always expected cruelty; he wonders how long he can keep them around, when they are going to leave, when he is going to arrive to find them locking the door against him and laughing at him. Of course they never do. We have the benevolent couple Harold and Julia, the heroic doctor Andy, and the brilliant Willem, all of whom love Jude constantly and with an almost unfailing generosity. And I have to confess, I found this part of the novel unbelievable. (Though that begs the question: what does it say about me that I can't believe anyone is going to love Jude so unconditionally?) They love him despite that fact that he frustrates them to no end by abusing himself and by distrustfully pushing them away, to try to reproduce the abandonment and cruelty he felt as a child ... and yet they all stay.
But that small gripe aside, this narrative is a testament to the capacity of the human spirit to survive and to find joy. I felt a hollow space carve out inside my chest reading this book; and yet I also felt it fill up. And it has haunted me for days after finishing it.