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Monday, June 11, 2018

Tracy Kidder, A Truck Full of Money

Kidder always chooses interesting, even eccentric characters to cover. Paul English, entrepreneur, programmer, person with bipolar, is another one. I did find him intriguing and dynamic. But I think I was expecting more of a story arc for English. I know that when writing biography, one doesn't want to fit life to a pre-set arc. But I lost some interest about halfway through, when the storyline and timeline started getting fuzzy.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Jennifer Egan, MANHATTAN BEACH

Reading some of the reviews afterwards, I found myself surprised. Boring? Conventional? Crap? Hm. ... Several readers suggest that this book suffers by comparison with Egan's Pulitzer-Prize-winning A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD, which was admittedly an extraordinary, inventive, ambitious post-mod novel. But as Elphaba sings--"I'm not that girl." This book isn't that kind of book and doesn't attempt to be (to me, it hearkens back to The Keep rather than Goon); and judged on its own merits, as an historical noir-ish novel, it has much to recommend it, including original characters and details that to me felt organic, germane, and presented with Egan's usual skill. I read this book in two days; and if at times I felt psychological motivation was a bit thin (just why does Anna want to become a diver? why is she attracted to Dexter Styles? why exactly does Eddie seem so emotionally detached from his family?) I was willing to forgive it because I felt transported to the time and place--and because in noir-ish books, characters tend to be somewhat inscrutable. To me, that's part of the general darkness. Maybe I'm just a sucker for any kind of historical novel (particularly with a bit of mystery), but there were passages that gave me the satisfying feeling of Egan having gotten it just right, needlepoint as opposed to the nautical knots Anna undoes. For example--and it doesn't really work to take sentences out of context--in describing Merchant Marine men: "No one talked more than men on ships, but the point of the stories they told was to hide the ones they could never divulge to anyone." "Mackey gave him a strained, haunted glance--the look of a man whose desperation had trumped his ability to play along."

Thursday, March 22, 2018

George Saunders, LINCOLN IN THE BARDO

Wildly imaginative and unusual. It took me a while to gather what was happening--it's a conversation among the ghosts in a graveyard where little Willie Lincoln has been interred in 1862, one year into the Civil War. But the ghost characters range from slaves to a reverend to a man whose every other word is the f-bomb. Lincoln himself appears; and the graveyard keeper. All the personal accounts are interspersed with quotes from historical texts and figures, most of which contradict each other and made me smile. The themes are poignant and rich and ambitious, and there's not a sentimental or cliche'd sentence in the book. The deepest concern in this book seemed to be empathy--with the governing metaphor for it the way that ghosts are able to slip inside Lincoln to convey the truth of their experience. (I found myself thinking of that old Robert Downey Jr. movie, "Heart and Souls.") Liked it very much.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Lisa Ko, THE LEAVERS

Very well written story about a Chinese immigrant woman and her son, making their way in NYC, only to be torn apart; through a series of leavings and many years, they reinvent themselves and find a way to be mother and son. One of my favorite passages is about the boy, Daniel (born Deming), who is a musician: "For so long, he had thought that music was the one thing he could believe in: harmony and angular submelody and rolling drums, a world neither present nor past, a space inhabited by the length of a song. For a song had a heart of its own, a song could jumpstart or provide solace; only music could numb him more thoroughly than weed or alcohol" (p. 258).

J.B. West with Mary Lynn Kotz, UPSTAIRS AT THE WHITE HOUSE: MY LIFE WITH THE FIRST LADIES

An interesting read from the perspective of the Chief Usher of the White House from Eleanor Roosevelt through the beginning of Pat Nixon's tenure. It's an alternate history, in that the focus is on the first ladies, not the presidents. For example, the shooting of JFK is given one line; in any other history, it would be Jacqueline Kennedy's story that took a back seat. Here, she's front seat. It also reveals the quirks of the presidents and the immense expenses they ran up--for example, Johnson's obsession with his shower, which West compares to a Rube Goldberg contraption and which cost thousands to install and was subsequently ripped out by Nixon. That said, West tends to sugar-coat things a bit, and the ladies are not always represented as having inconsistent characters; but it's still an engaging read without being a "tell-all."

Pamela Paul, MY LIFE WITH BOB: FLAWED HEROINE KEEPS BOOK OF BOOKS, PLOT ENSUES

Completely loved this memoir/essay about a young woman who was an avid reader and geek from early on, keeping a Book of Books (BOB), a list of every book she ever read. I have done that on-and-off my whole life, and many of the books (and movies) that she mentioned were ones I loved. Here is the sentence that I starred, halfway through; she is writing about Spalding Gray: "I didn't share Gray's struggling with drinking or his depression or the legacy of a suicidal mother. But I'd never, in reading a personal narrative felt such a close affinity with a writer; it was as if we viewed the world through a shared lens." It's like an infinite mirror ... because that was precisely how I feel about Pamela Paul and this book. (I may just have to stalk her.)

Celeste Ng, LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE

This deeply felt book takes place in the Pleasantville-ish town of Shaker Heights, Ohio (where Ng spent part of her childhood). It begins with the peripatetic artist Mia and her daughter Pearl arriving at the town and disrupting the natural order some; their lives become intertwined with the large Richardson family. But then Mia, in her role as housekeeper, hears Mrs. Richardson talking about a baby girl who was left at a fire station and whom her friend Linda adopted; Mia, in her role as worker at a Chinese restaurant, knows that Bebe, another worker, left the baby there in despair but has been searching for her daughter ever since. The controversy over who has the right to the child tears the town and the Richardson family apart. To say more would just be spoiling. I liked this book better than Ng's first. A fave line: "She had never seen an adult cry like that, with such an animal sound. Recklessly. As if there were nothing more to be lost."