Pages

Monday, August 7, 2017

Andrea Avery, SONATA: A MEMOIR OF PAIN AND THE PIANO

I haven't been this touched by a book since I read LIT, the memoir by Mary Carr. Avery's SONATA is at once deeply felt and light on its poetic feet, even playful, and I found myself putting little ticks in the margin for the lines that sang to me. I found myself in tears at parts; but this book is not a melodramatic tale of her disease; nor is it a cerebral meditation; nor an example of how to "make the best of a rotten situation." Far from any of these genres, it is a woman's deeply personal account of how she learned to create, build, rebuild, start over, and stay open and vulnerable and soft in the face of a cruel and unpredictable disease. I'm in awe, not just of her ability to craft a deeply meaningful life but to craft a book that I will probably push at everyone I know for the next month.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Nicola Phillips, THE PROFLIGATE SON: OR, A TRUE STORY OF FAMILY CONFLICT, FASHIONABLE VICE AND FINANCIAL RUIN IN REGENCY BRITAIN

An incredibly well-researched historical account of a young man in Regency England who grew up in privilege but slid into debt, depravity, crime, and eventually the penal colony in Australia. One review I read said the book made the reader want to shake William--and I had to agree. Nowadays, he'd probably be diagnosed with narcissistic or borderline personality disorder. He seemed to have no ability to understand that his actions brought about consequences, with an attitude of "Well, yes, I bought eighteen shirts on my father's credit and then pawned them for ready money so I could get drunk and visit a prostitute, but it's my father's fault because he doesn't give me enough allowance!" As a parent, I found it a bit terrifying to contemplate. My one gripe is that William's repeated errors and crimes are precisely that--repeated--and I found myself skimming at points in the narrative because it was just another incident of his bad judgment. But as a researcher, I greatly admired Nicola Phillips's ability to make this individual story a lens into the historical period, illuminating many of the prevailing social and legal issues. I would recommend for anyone interested in early- to mid-1800s England.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Graham Moore, THE LAST DAYS OF NIGHT

If even half of what this book says is true, Edison was one of the most unethical, revolting (no pun intended) men on the planet in the 1880s. Westinghouse wasn't much better; J.P. Morgan and the rest of the businessmen come off as soulless and, at times, petty. The book is told in 3rd person but focalized through Paul Cravath, the young and somewhat idealistic lawyer hired by Westinghouse, out to prove his chops in NYC. The fight was ostensibly about who created the first lightbulb; Edison sued Westinghouse 312 times to assert his claims. I lost track of all the countersuing. The other question was whether Direct Current or Alternating Current would prevail. At one point, Edison fed false facts to newspapers and tested Westinghouse's A/C on dogs, killing them to prove that it was deadly. There are some odd touches; at the heads of chapters, Moore includes quotes from Steve Jobs in this book about 1880s New York; they felt jarring to me. But overall, the historical details are well managed; it's a compelling story, and toward the end I was race-reading, wondering how on earth Cravath was going to manage it all.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Anderson Cooper, THE RAINBOW COMES AND GOES

There is a tender story buried in this book, but I found the question-and-answer format, between Anderson and his mother, clumsy, workmanlike, and hard to read (and to take as truth). Gloria Vanderbilt comes off as whiny and not terribly self-aware; there is no real trajectory of discovery or enlightenment; and Cooper's repeated "Wow, that must have been hard for you" sounds like something out of a superficial therapy session. Bummer, because I like Anderson Cooper, and Gloria had talent to spare.

Abir Mukherjee, A RISING MAN

I enjoyed this debut mystery about a Scotland Yard inspector transferred to India in 1919 and asked to solve a murder. The depiction of Calcutta was very good, and I was rooting for the main character. I did have a few quibbles ... At times the phrases seemed anachronistic; perhaps I'm wrong, but "We'll have to abort" doesn't feel quite right for 1919 Calcutta. Captain Wyndham's backstory of the WWI trenches seems a bit too casually used; to me, the trauma of it seemed not to be deeply interwoven into his psyche; I would have liked to see more of a connection between his backstory and his present actions. There are two "teaching" characters in the book, who each explain to Wyndham (and the reader) what we need to know about the corruption in India and the unfairness of British rule in what amount to monologues; this felt a bit heavy-handed, although I found all the information interesting. And Wyndham's "eureka" moments were, for the most part, very sudden and a product of him ruminating, rather than immediately following a new discovery; he'd realize something and dash off, and I was still standing in the room thinking, hunh? But these are minor points. The Captain is engaging; his Indian sidekick is a charming foil; the politics complex; and the wry humor tucked in is welcome. I'd definitely try another.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Kaite Welsh, THE WAGES OF SIN

Kudos to Welsh for some good research into Victorian Edinburgh and the medical profession, with only a few liberties with the facts (dates and such); I always love historical mysteries. My difficulty with this book was twofold: (1) Its unevenness in pacing. Some of the synopsis should be scenes, and vice versa; there is a lot of internal monologue and anxious cogitation; and the main plot line advances unevenly. (2) The psychological incoherence of the protagonist, Sarah. At times Sarah seems astute and "feisty," but her emotional states and loyalties shift from paragraph to paragraph. Trust turns to distrust on a dime; fierce energy flips to constitutional fatigue from having grown up in society; on one page she is so distraught she's retching up bile and on the next page (literally), she is taking a bath in lavender and giggling with her friend Elisabeth (who has just forgiven Sarah for mistakenly accusing her husband of consorting with prostitutes). The emotions felt overwrought to me and at times unwarranted. Sarah's haunting backstory seems to be inserted into the story merely to give her a "secret" for the reader to piece together rather than worked into the story organically, as an experience that shapes Sarah's motivations and behaviors. The author's 21st-century feminism appears at odd moments, and it felt at times that the author was trying to provide a (deserved) moral lesson vis-a-vis some of the characters: "So why turn on me?" I asked, exasperated. "We both had secrets, why persecute the one person who was in the same position? ... That's hardly sisterhood, Julia."

The book could also have used a bit more editing; the adverbs were at times overwhelming (e.g.: "I stared at him dumbly. I had forgotten that Elisabeth told me he and her husband were friends. Clearly, I thought bitterly, they had a lot in common") and repetitive: "Clearly looking after a houseful of mob-capped delinquents had its fair share of problems. Sergeant Lester and Miss Dawson were clearly acquainted, although quite how closely her blush only allowed me to speculate. He reassured us that his medical man was coming, clearly discomfited at Aunt Emily's unflappable demeanor."

But I have a feeling these are just the marks of a debut novel; I think Welsh could turn this into an engaging, interesting series, with a man/woman doctor-detective team, similar to some of Anne Perry's Monk mysteries.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Louise Erdrich, THE ROUND HOUSE

I'd read some short stories by Erdrich, but this was the first time I read one of her novels. This is one of my favorite genres to read--a mystery that unwinds amidst a network of relationships and actions that reach deep into the past. Given the 13-year-old observant protagonist/narrator and questions of the kinds of laws and mores that result in (in)justice, I found myself thinking of To Kill A Mockingbird; the plot twists and the emotional intensity reminded me of Tana French; and I felt shades of Sherman Alexie in the realism of life on the reservation and some of the wry humor (this hero, Joe, feels a bit like Alexie's of "True Diary"). And Erdrich writes wonderfully; I found myself underlining phrases and rereading them several times before moving on. They're never as good out of context, but here are some: "A life that had worn itself into bachelor grooves and a house of womanless chaos." "I felt the tremendous hush in our little house as something that follows int he wake of a huge explosion." "I knew if I moved I'd snap the pull between them." Enjoyed this very much, and still thinking about it.