Sunday, December 23, 2012

Pat Barker, LIFE CLASS

The title is a play on words, gesturing both to the class at the Slade (Art School in London) and the sort of lessons war teaches about life. This is what I think of as almost an old-fashioned novel--not a lot of action, but several character arcs that intersect. Oh ... and beautiful writing. The lines are never as good out of context, so I won't try, but Barker's prose is stunning at times. The story begins in the 1910s and concerns a small group of artists, in a love triangle; Elinor refuses to look at the war; Neville is already famous as a bold artist, but a narcissist; Paul tries to enlist but is turned away, so works in one of the hospitals near Ypres, and eventually turns away from his artificial landscapes and paints the tragedies of war. It's about love, but also about the moral role of art in a world at war. Liked it very much.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


If you liked *Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet*, you might give this a try. It is a brilliant, dense, bitterly humorous, wide-ranging tale told by half a dozen narrators, including Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley, who has managed to launch a smuggling operation on his new boat; a half-black, half-white aborigine from Tasmania named Peevey, who is filled with vitriolic hatred of the whites who have driven him hither and thither and killed nearly everyone he knows; and the three "English Passengers" of the title, who voyage on Kewley's ship to Tasmania. One of this is roughly based on Knox, whose viciously racist notions were published in the mid 1800s; another is a self-righteous preacher who believes he will find the original site of Eden in Tasmania; the third is a lazy botanist who has been shoved out of England by his family, who has declared him hopeless. A masterpiece (and Booker Prize Finalist), but NOT a quick read.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Larry Watson, MONTANA 1948

A good, small book, told from the perspective of a boy who watches a scandal unfold inside his family. It's short--175 pages--with big themes (race, power, sexuality) and heart--and some beautiful, poetic language.


The usual Grisham, complete with flight from life at the end. My favorite remains The Pelican Brief.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Karen Thompson Walker, THE AGE OF MIRACLES

Walker's first, this is a dystopia novel, told by a nearly-twelve-year-old girl named Julia. (I have one of those.) Very well written and a page-turner ... but it's both a tender and painful coming-of-age story and a fateful warning.  Definitely worth a read.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


The cover is sort of scripty and features a sort of dated painting of the coast of Italy ... and I will admit I am so clueless I thought Jess Walter--the name of the author, written in a pretty yellow script--is a girl--he's not. (I haven't read his other books, but I will.) (Soon.) So I'm thinking something like A SAPPY ROMANCE meets A NOVEL FEATURING A HOT ITALIAN DUDE. Nothing could be further from the truth. This book is powerful, heartbreaking, haunting, and ultimately lovely and even (dare I say) forgiving and sweet. I wouldn't miss this one. It has all the power of ART OF FIELDING (5 stories, 5 wounded people, wound together) and CINEMA PARADISO. When is the last time you saw a novel with Richard Burton as a character? Hands down, one of my favorites of the year. (And I can say that ... now that we're more than half way through November, holy X*%#$.)

Friday, November 16, 2012

Ashley Prentice Norton, THE CHOCOLATE MONEY

Stayed up last night to finish this compulsively readable novel by an old friend of mine from grad school. Yes, like lots of first novels, it's based in part on her life, and it has all the raw power of memoirs such as DON'T LETS GO TO THE DOGS TONIGHT, GLASS CASTLE, or THE JACKS BANK. It's told in the first person (with dated chapters,  memoir-style) by Bettina, whose narcissistic bitch of a mother Babs is heiress to a chocolate fortune worth $300MM. It traces Bettina from Chicago to a prep school to New York City. It's a brave, fearless book with wry humor; some of her lines just sing, and her imagery (burning, hair, pennies) is like a set of gold threads in a tapestry, holding the book together in a way that transcends plot.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


Every since Stieg, the world has a craving for things Nordic! Well, I have to say I loved this one (in its Norwegian translation). It has barely any twists or turns. It's a cozy--all violence happens off-stage. The two murder cases are solved almost too easily (really? the rapist/murderer is spotted in the supermarket?) and yet I didn't care! I found the characters so compelling and the writing so spare and economical and unusual, I didn't put it down.


Ok, every two or three years I have to reread this one. POINTS to anyone who knows Atticus's childhood nickname. : )

Monday, October 29, 2012


Another William Monk mystery, this time about the influence of the opium trade. As usual, Perry has researched deeply into some aspect of Victorian England (the opium trade, going back to the Opium Wars with China) that had a profound influence on some aspect of Victorian culture. But I found this book a bit repetitive; at least four characters point out that the hypodermic syringe loaded with opium can cause an addiction that borders on a living death. The need for opium to treat pain is clear, as is the necessity for a "Pharmacy Act" that will label the contents of potions with opium; yet several characters repeatedly worry that the Act will limit people's ability to obtain it, which didn't make sense to me (though I am coming from a 21st-century perspective and it may very well have been a Victorian worry). There are some sloppy bits: for example, one of the characters, Agatha Nisbet, is "Agnes Nisbet" on page 305. Perry is so good at what she does, these are minor gripes. I do, however, prefer some of her earlier novels.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


I think this is an important book--and I found it very engaging, not at all dry. Drawing on all kinds of studies--from sociological to biological to microbiological--Tough explains why warm, responsive parenting (and teaching) pretty much trumps all other influences (poverty, etc.) in creating a calm, resilient child who grows up into a successful adult; and that a student's GPA, not their IQ, is by far a better predictor of success in college and beyond. It's a child's ability to persevere that matters. I would recommend this for anyone interested in what makes our kids tick and what makes our schools work (or not).

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Michael Sears, BLACK FRIDAYS

It's funny that I just finished SUTTON, which was about an ex-con who'd just gotten out of jail. This one's about another ex-con who just got out of jail--Jason Stafford, a Wall Street type who got caught. This is one of the best suspense thrillers I've read in a long time--but it goes beyond being a straight finance-crime thriller: Jason has a crazy ex-wife and a son with autism. Another great read, that I stayed up too late for! If you like Tana French, you might like this one.

Saturday, October 13, 2012


Victorian England murder and mayhem! Set in Drury Lane, with great period detail and a detective named Pyke. Rat-catchers, cat's-meat men, thieves and hole-men (who clean out cess-pools). All kinds of jobs you wouldn't want, and a mystery with a mounting body count. Good fun.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Kevin Wilson, FAMILY FANG

A very twisted novel about two children who grow up in a family with two parents who use them as objects in their "live art." They go to a mall and hand out fake coupons, then film what happens. It's so demented, so far gone, that when the father falls down in the supermarket and drops a jar of spaghetti, child B (they're child A and child B) thinks it's part of a "live art" episode and gets down and begins to lick up the spaghetti, glass and all. Very well written and compelling, but probably one of the most disturbing novels I've ever read. Women who put their daughters in beauty pageants have nothing on the Fangs.

J.R. Moehringer, SUTTON

Just finished this first novel. It's amazing. Yes, it's about a gangster, but in the same way that Peter Carey's KELLY GANG is about a gangster (as in, it's about passion and pain and memory and honor and love). Could not put it down, was reading last night till WAY after midnight. (Some of you may remember THE TENDER BAR, from a few years back, Moehringer's memoir about his father; he grew up partly in Phoenix--also very well written.) I would not miss this one.  

Monday, September 24, 2012

Bernard Knight, DEAD IN THE DOG

1950s murder mystery set in Malaya. Interesting historical details, but tends to be repetitive (same phrases about diseases and so on); ends on a flurry of deaths and two suicide notes.


I first read this in high school, and quite a bit of it went over my head. But it is one of my favorite novels. Written in 1953, and set in South Africa, it is narrated by Sophie, the spinster aunt of Pieter van Vlaanderen, a man who looks quite perfect: he's a lieutenant, he's 6'3" and handsome, he's a rugby star. But then he breaks the Immorality Law and sleeps with a black woman. This book is nearly perfect as a  character study--they're all round, all flawed, all wanting things they can't have. Makes my A list.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


O.K., if anyone told me I was going to really like a book about two wild west outlaws in 1851, one of whom who kills people who merely look at him wrong, I'd say ... mmmm, maybe not. But I liked this book very much; the narrator's voice is as clear as a bell, and it's really about loyalty, brotherhood, greed, loss, and redemption. The SAD part is I got halfway through rereading it before I realized I have read this before! My friend Evan gave it to me a while back and when I read the part about the prostitute and the gold, I realized ... oh ... duh. Not sure why it's not on my blog. (I never blog about books I don't like, but I like this one.) My blog is my memory when it comes to books. Now, not only my true memory but my blog has holes in it. Alas.
Eli (the narrator) and Charlie Sisters are on yet another job for the Commodore. Eli tends toward having a conscience and is looking for a quieter life; but his older brother Charlie has always been the leader. When they are put on the trail of a man who has a chemical formula for finding gold ...
First lines: "I was sitting outside the Commodore's mansion, waiting for my brother Charlie to come out with  news of the job. It was threatening to snow and I was cold and for want of something to do I studied Charlies' new horse, Nimble. My new horse was called Tub. We did not not believe in naming horses but they were given to us as partial payment for the last job with the names intact, so that was that. Our unnamed previous horses had been immolated, so it was not as though we did not need these new ones ..."

Friday, August 31, 2012


Oh, this was a good one. I'd had it on my shelf for a while and finally pulled it out. The title hints at the very funny (sometimes bordering on manic) kind of self-reflexive humor throughout the book. On the one hand it's about a 22-year-old who loses both his parents to cancer within 5 weeks; he's left with an older brother (who works at a think tank), an older sister (law school), and a younger brother (Toph, age 9). The protagonist has to adopt the role of the father to his younger brother. So that's part of the story; the other part is about overturning, playing with the expectations of trite novels about death (a la Princess Bride!). I loved it, even if at times it cut rather close to the bone because my father died this past May. For those who liked DEAR AMERICAN AIRLINES, this might be a good next pick. Has anybody out there read Eggers' most recent?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


I loved this memoir/series of essays, from a woman who has, by her 50s, so clearly made peace with the chaos of being a woman, wife, mother, writer through decades when women's roles were changing and ideas of what constituted adequate parenting underwent major revision. Her voice is wise and compassionate, reassuring and quite often very funny. (I will keep this book on my shelf ... she's someone I think I want along for the ride.) First lines: "It's odd when I think of the arc of my life, from child to young woman to aging adult. First I was who I was. Then I didn't know who I was. Then I invented someone and became her. Then I began to like what I'd invented. And finally I was what I was again."


Another dense, twisty, harrowing story from my favorite mystery writer. A triple murder in a half-built housing development in the middle of nowhere.

Saturday, July 28, 2012


A novel about a family surviving Katrina--although the storm doesn't appear until Chapter 11, and there's a part of me that feels that surviving their daily life is hard enough. Full of gritty, often gruesome detail (I had to skip over a couple of paragraphs at the part in which Skeetah, one of the boys, pits his dog China against another dog in a fight), this is a book about loss and salvaging what remains. The protagonist, a girl named Esch, is pregnant; the father is her brother Randall's best friend Manny who lives with another woman in a trailer; he won't look at her, but he still wants to screw her in the bathroom at Randall's basketball game. When a fight breaks out between Skeetah and Manny at the game, Randall loses his chance to go to basketball camp. When Katrina is on its way, Esch's father is trying to board up their house and loses part of his hand. When the floodwaters rise around the house, and they have to jump from the attic to a tree to get to safety, Skeetah loses his beloved dog. They lost their mother years ago, when she gave birth to Junior. This book won the National Book Award in 2011, and the writer is a professor of creative writing at U of Southern Alabama. Although the metaphors at times threaten to overpower Esch's strong, clear voice, it's a powerful novel--stirs feelings of pain and frustration and profound sadness.

Laura Shaine Cunningham, SLEEPING ARRANGEMENTS

My dear friend Claudia gave me this memoir, about a girl who grows up first without a father (her mother tells her for years that he is "in the war"; never mind that the US isn't at war) and then, after a few years, without her mother, who dies (high up in a hospital, unclear how). Raised by two bachelor uncles (one of whom wears a pith helmet while cooking) in a junior-four in the Bronx, which she has decorated to her seven-year-old taste, complete with pink bathmats sewn together in the livingroom, she experiences a childhood that is at once wildly unorthodox and deeply loving and kind. Beautifully written, with metaphors that surprise without ever trying too hard. Loved this one.

Monday, July 23, 2012


Another William and Charlotte Pitt novel. This one is light on big-screenish "action"--no chase scenes, no near escapes (till the very end). Instead, it's a novel that consists (until the last thirty pages) primarily of discussions among a small group of people who have ties to Austria and ties to England. The betrayals and the affirmed loyalties occur at the level of individuals. And it's set in late Victorian London ... of course I liked it ...

Toni Morrison, HOME

A finely-wrought novel about Frank, a black American survivor of the Korean War, who returns home only to confront prejudice and a tragedy for his sister in the making. This is a quick read, less than 150 pages, but lyrical. First lines: "They rose up like men. We saw them. Like men they stood. We shouldn't have been anywhere near that place."


An unusual memoir about a woman in her 40s (an award-winning environmental policy reporter, by the way) who decides to buy a piano ... and discovers that it's harder than it looks. Blessed (or cursed) with a sensitive ear, Knize tries dozens of pianos before she finds the perfect one; she brings her piano home to Montana ... and it's gone dead, shrill, and horrible. What to do? Her research about pianos, their tone, and their voice takes her to New York and to Europe, and we follow her as she learns about everything from the wood that a piano is made from to various methods of "voicing" and metaphysics. This book was surprisingly readable, for someone like me who knows virtually nothing about pianos--because (sort of like with Lance Armstrong, who wrote IT'S NOT ABOUT THE BIKE) it's not about the piano. It's about curiosity and community and belief.


Great fun, riotous historical adventure with mystery and some myth thrown in. If you liked Indiana Jones, you will probably like this novel set in late 1700s; it's lighter than David Liss but well researched and engaging, with lots of interesting information about Napoleon's forays into Egypt, the Golden Mean, and pyramids. Clearly the beginning of a series.

Monday, June 25, 2012


Very good debut novel, about three sisters (Rosalind, Bianca, and Cordelia ... Dad's a professor, a Shakespeare expert) who gather to their childhood home in Ohio when their mother is diagnosed with breast cancer. There's something in this book I've never seen before: a first-person plural narrator ... the whole book is told by a "we" (as in weird!), and it works. Rose (the eldest) is predictably reliable and responsible; Bianca ("Bean") the middle (also somewhat predictably) feels invisible, overshadowed by eldest and youngest, and is bad with money; Cordelia is the free spirit whom everyone loves and babies. But for the most part, the book avoids cliches; there's clever dialog and messy lovable characters, as well as lots of Shakespeare, sprinkled throughout in a good way. I read this one in a day.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Gillian Flynn, GONE GIRL: A NOVEL

Wow, what a TWISTED book. I mean that in the very best way. The story of a marriage between good-looking, laid-back Nick and amazing Amy gone wrong because of preconceptions and selfishness and narcissism; because of the daily, small things that pick at a marriage; and--mostly--because each one, Nick and Amy, has a fundamental (or a few fundamental) flaws. This book seriously asks us to think about the uneasy question: where does flaw cross over into sociopathy? It's also a solid crime novel (murder, affair, more murder), and a brilliant meta-novel about how, now that there are shows like CSI and Law and Order, crime stories can be shaped and sheared by the perpetrator(s) to look like this or look like that. For anyone who likes Tana French, I'd say give this one a try.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Olen Steinhauer, THE CONFESSION

Gripping thriller set in eastern Europe, 1956, with Comrade Inspector Ferenc Kolyeszar trying to uncover the reason for a growing body count. Dark, seedy, scary, with a shifty, uncertain moral center and several satisfying plot twists. Not gratuitously violent, but though I will read other novels by this author, I will not read them before bed.

Sunday, June 3, 2012


An interesting memoir, published 2001, about a man who lives in Paris and slowly discovers a piano shop, a piano of his own, and a whole world of pianos--along with a group of Parisians who tune and play and even revere them. It's a well-written, at times poetic story filled with curious and intriguing facts and some great personalities. Sort of a "niche" book but an engaging read.


Another mystery set in England in the aftermath of WWI. Scotland Yard Inspector John Madden, haunted by his traumatic memories of the war, is an investigator involved in a brutal multiple murder in a country house. It's more savage and dark than the Maisie Dobbs novels and includes a passionate and racy romance plot between Madden and the brilliant Dr. Helen Blackwell, a proto-profiler. At times I had a hard time keeping track of all the characters--there are many investigators and officers, including the youngster Billy whom Madden must take in hand. But some of the descriptions of place are beautifully written, and it's a good, quick read.


Another Maisie Dobbs novel. Like her first novel in the series, this mystery novel explores the long shadow of WWI. A promising young man dies in 1917 and his body is discovered in 1932. He's carrying some letters from a nurse (like Maisie was during the war), and his parents ask Maisie to help find her. Woven amongst the mystery are the subplots of Maisie's own life--falling in love, losing a mentor, helping a friend whose wife is mentally ill, supporting a friend who tends to drink. This is not a driving, thrilling, death-defying mystery; but it's a finely etched portrait of a woman in her community, who also happens to have unusual instincts for solving crimes involving the human heart.

Saturday, May 19, 2012


Another William and Hester Monk mystery, set in Victorian England. This one crosses the Atlantic and involves two men, both of whom want to buy guns, but for opposite sides of the US Civil War. A misguided a girl, a fanatic, and some great atmosphere down by the docks of the Thames.

Jennifer Egan, THE KEEP

I forgot how much I liked this book. It was sitting on top of my bookshelf, next to one of Kyle's baseballs which are adorning my house these days. I originally read it back in 2006, for bookclub. A three-part novel about two boys and a prank gone bad and castle in eastern Europe where they rejoin each other years later; a murderer who's taking a writing class in prison; and his teacher, a woman with her own messy past. Categories of fiction/real, wrong/right, past/present blur and blend. A great read.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Jacqueline Winspear, MAISIE DOBBS

A quiet, thoughtful mystery/personal-recovery-from-trauma-of-war book, the first in a series. Maisie, a former maid who was plucked from her job by her employer who recognized her superior intellect, plans to go to Cambridge until WWI interrupts her life. She becomes a  nurse, falls in love, and loses her lover to a bomb blast in the field, or so it seems throughout the book. Except (spoiler alert) he's not really dead ... he's just so badly injured that she never goes to see him, until the end of the book. Her personal plot is linked with the mystery plot, which concerns a scary, closed community (one of the characters calls it a "cult") called The Retreat, in which men who are injured in the war can find refuge. But like in "Hotel California"--they can never leave--at least, not alive; the man who runs it looks the image of a perfect officer, but is deranged. There's some nice psychological fodder throughout (and Winspear has done her homework on trauma and PTSD); but Maisie, as a character, feels as if she's hard to know. Maybe this is partly because the story is focalized through Maisie (the movie camera is on her shoulder, so to speak) but told in third person. I would give the next book in the series a try, though.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Jennifer Donnelly, THE TEA ROSE

Having read her YA novels, I was expecting something similar--intense and tightly woven as cloth. This adult novel is an enjoyable read--but it's a big, baggy epic/immigration novel/mystery/melodrama/bodice-ripper. The plot moves forward mostly through a series of near-misses and mis-understandings: the day the heroine (Fiona, a plucky English girl from Whitechapel area) gets a job and doesn't go to see her lover Joe in the city is the same time as the one party a year thrown by his boss's family--where Joe drinks and weakly succumbs to another girl's advances--and when she gets pregnant he has to marry her. Miserable beyond belief (and having had 4 of her family members die within weeks of each other in one horrible way after another, including a murder by Jack the Ripper) Fiona takes her younger brother and leaves England for America and marries a man she meets on the dock ... but if Joe had turned up in NYC a day earlier, he'd have caught her before she did! Coincidences notwithstanding, the Victorian atmosphere is marvelous and seedy ... and I love Jennifer Donnelly and would pretty much read a phone book if she wrote it.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Alexis M. Smith, GLACIERS

This is a little jewelbox of a novel, poetic and poignant. Smith gives us one day in the life of Isabel, who collects items from junkshops and works in a library restoring old tattered books; she deals, gently, in scraps and broken things. At work, there's a computer tech named Spoke who, like her, deals in broken things: with his grandfather, as a child, he'd pick up lamps and bicycles and whatnot off the side of the road and take them back to their workshop. [Spoiler alert:] After high school, he enlists and becomes a fix-it guy in Iraq. One day, some Iraqi kids are trying to ride a broken bike, and he fixes it for them. But a donkey carrying a bomb comes by and blows everyone up; Spoke takes a spoke to his lung. Now Isabel, who loves Spoke, finds out that he has to go back for another tour in Iraq. This book is in part about how the material world (literally, in his case) gets under our skin, and how our stories are made up of scraps and treasures that we fix in place.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Wendy Mass, FINALLY

An engaging, sweet, and at times very funny account of a girl turning twelve. She's got this list of all the things she'll finally be allowed to do when she's twelve... get a pet, get a cell phone, get her ears pierced, go to boy-girl parties. Except the bunny she picks turns out to be a psycho; her cell phone number is formerly a pizza shop, so she gets calls at all hours for pizza orders; she has a terrible allergic reaction to the gold in the earrings; and the boy-girl party isn't as much fun as she thought. The tone is light, and middle-grade readers will enjoy. First lines: "I'm a big wisher. I'll wish on anything. Shooting stars, stray eyelashes, dandelion tops, coins in fountains. Birthday candles (my own and other people's)."


This book has a great pedigree ... from SCBWI grant winner to a fabulous agent to a great publisher, and it's a New York Times bestseller. The protagonist is a girl who commits suicide; but before she dies, she makes 7 cassette tapes (13 sides, one is blank), explaining the thirteen reasons why she did it--as in, the thirteen people who hurt her through spreading nasty rumors, letting her down cruelly, and not catching on to how unhappy she was. She sends the box of tapes out and they circulate among the people, so her voice speaks from behind the grave (a variation of the fantasy: if I killed myself, those people would feel bad and cry at my funeral ... the catch of course always being that the victim can't be there to enjoy the spectacle). The narrator, Chad, who seems like a genuinely nice boy, is somewhere in the middle of the receivers. So we get her voice in italics interspersed with his thoughts.
The plot reminds me of that haunting play, An Inspector Calls, in which a working-class girl kills herself and Inspector Goole (what a name) uncovers how every member of a middle-class family played a part in driving her to do it.
Teenage suicide is horrifying, and my heart goes out to kids who are so full of despair; but (here's my ugly confession) I just could not warm up to this girl. Maybe I kept my distance because I knew she was dead from the beginning? Or because once she decided that most of the world was hurtful, she couldn't give anyone a chance (including the reader ... the 14th side of the cassettes, in a way)? Or maybe because she didn't strike me as despairing and sad ... just very angry. I know despair and anger are related; despair is often thought of as anger turned toward the self. I guess someone who is this angry is willing to play the ultimate trump card to drive her point home. Maybe I kept my distance because this book scares me for my own kids.
Has anybody out there read this yet?

Wednesday, February 29, 2012


Several months ago, a friend gave me an article in Vanity Fair about a debut author named Chad Harbach who had spent ten years writing a book that took as its starting point a college shortstop who makes one terrible throw, gives his teammate a concussion, and loses all confidence in his arm. Many rejections and revisions later, the book is a NYT bestseller. (A happy thing for all of us that Harbach didn't lose all confidence in his pen.) And it's not a baseball book. The novel is set in a small college in the crook of the baseball glove that is Wisconsin. (Wisconsin was my stomping ground for two winters ... as in stomping the snow off my boots for six months of the year; but I remember it fondly.) There are five characters whose lives are intertwined: Henry the phenom shortstop, his mentor Mike Schwarz, Henry's roommate Owen, the president of the college with whom Owen is having an affair, and the president's daughter who has fled her mistake of a first marriage. Fielding serves as a metaphor, but it's done with a light touch. Of the five, I think the most sympathetically drawn character is Mike Schwarz, the catcher for the team; he doesn't take good care of himself, but he catches people as they fall.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


My pal Jody gave me this one, a compelling, well-written non-fiction about the Annawadi slum next to the slick and shiny Mumbai International Airport. Boo, a Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist out of Washington D.C., spent three years following a group of people as they sift garbage, sell garbage, and have it stolen from them; are accused (falsely) of burning a neighbor and go to trial (where the stenographer doesn't understand most of what they're saying); run a school, survive a monsoon, and try to figure out who they need to pay off and who they don't (which I found completely bewildering). The title comes from a wall that divides the airport from the slum; it advertises Italianate floor tiles, with a corporate slogan running the length of the wall: Beautiful Forever Beautiful Forever. But the "divide" of Beautiful and Ugly isn't as rigid as the wall. Boo offers a nuanced picture, beyond the standard heart-rending one; she describes people who are entrepreneurial, wary, observant, aspiring, and capable, as well as corrupt and deceitful and desperate. The explanation of what happens to all the donations and efforts of well-intentioned human rights groups is pretty discouraging, however.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Adrian Wojnarowski, THE MIRACLE OF ST. ANTHONY

It looks like a basketball book, which isn't my usual pick. But the story is really an underdog tale about a high school (St. Anthony's) in New Jersey that, with very few financial resources but one very determined coach named Bob Hurley, keeps kids out of gangs and churns out amazing basketball players year after year, including Hurley's own son. The chapters aren't really sequential--I found myself wanting to follow particular students of interest, but they sort of fade in and out, around stories about Cindy (Bob's wife) going into the hospital and other events. I also felt that the "pep talks" that Hurley gives are in a different language from my own. Or the excerpts are odd, as if they're taken out of context. Or maybe I just don't understand basketball pep talks. Like this one: "Freakin' Mosby. This is a character issue right now. Well, you better fuckin' grow up. Because if this continues in the North Jersey championship game, we lose." There's one point where Beanie (one of the players) says of Hurley, "He's really confusing." I felt sort of the same way, but I have to admire a coach who sticks with a penniless program, when he could have coached college for more money and prestige, and keeps these kids on track as well as he does.


BLOG should, in my case, stand for Belated Log. I've been reading and not posting ... and I've been reading books and not finishing them. I recently started Child 44, which is well-written; but it begins in 1939 starving Stalingrad and in the first chapter, a scrawny cat is being hunted as food by two children, who are then hunted as food. One dies, and the other is killed by, or near, a train. I flipped forward and things did not look up. I like to read before bed, and though I'm not a terrific wuss, I thought I couldn't hack this one. Then I tried a history of the fall of Berlin in 1945. Murder and several kinds of rape. I should've known, I guess. Again, I set that aside. Then I found Green's book, started, finished, loved it.
It's a well-written, touching and at times painfully raw YA about a girl who has cancer and the boy (in remission) whom she loves. The book has fun with an author named Peter Van Houton, who wrote a book called The Imperial Affliction about his own daughter's battle with cancer and then went off to Amsterdam to become a drunken recluse. This is how Peter takes his Scotch before breakfast: "We pour Scotch into a glass and then call to mind thoughts of water, and then we mix the actual Scotch with the abstracted idea of water." In describing The Imperial Affliction, Hazel (the narrator) says that it's not a cancer book; and this (Fault) isn't either. It skewers all kinds of beliefs about how cancer patients should be and turns Maslow's pyramidal hierarchy of needs on its side. Of the two main characters Augustus (aka Gus) is the more lively, the more obviously charming; he's like the John Cusack character in Say Anything, whereas Hazel is more the Ione Skye. But, as Gus says, Hazel treads lightly on the earth; and she has plenty of heart and wryness to make us love her. Spoiler alert: Be prepared to cry.

Saturday, January 14, 2012


Harrowing and brilliant, but as I told a friend the other day, it's a bit like riding a bicycle downhill with your hands off the handlebars. You surrender temporal logic and just leave off expecting conventional sentences; right off, the narrator, 31-year-old Saleem Sinai says his book is "an excess of intertwined lives events miracles places rumors." The novel doesn't follow the usual first-person-narrating-his-life line--born in 1947 in India at the same moment the country became independent, lived, and almost-died quite a few times, including a nightmarish episode in the jungle and by a sniper's bullet during the war in the 1970s. Instead, the book has its own inner logic, metaphorical and associative rather than linear. So in the chapter called "Snakes and Ladders," we get Saleem writing about his boyhood, when he liked to play the game "Snakes and Ladders" (Chutes and Ladders), although his father would prefer he plays chess because it's a smarter game; but in the same chapter, there's a rumor that a mad Bengali snake-charming was traveling the country, luring snakes out of captivity; there's a man who raises snakes for research living in a room above them; and a description of how Saleem nearly died on his first birthday and was saved by being given a mixture containing snake venom (so not all snakes are bad, unlike the game); and (though the ladders in the game go up) a servant who stole things is sent down a ladder out of the house. The effect is more like a web than a line. Another thing I loved about the book was Padma. While Saleem is writing the book, she cooks and cleans around him, and she's a wonderful, no-nonsense foil. "But what is so precious," Padma demands, her right hand slicing the air updownup in exasperation, "to need all this writing-shiting?" Throughout, the language is playful, two-edged, something to relish. "I was born ... on the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact. Clock-hands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came." "Saffron minutes and green seconds." Dense, wide-ranging, and not a fast read, one to savor.
Has anybody out there read his non-fiction?

Monday, January 9, 2012


Another good suspenseful novel ... but I have to confess I liked her first (TENDERNESS OF WOLVES) better. I'm not sure why. Like TOW, this novel shifts between points of view--this one between 14-year-old JJ (a Gypsy, a Traveler) and Ray Lovell, a half-Romany private investigator who is asked to solve the disappearance of Rose Janko. It's well told, and the ending reveals a "secret" that is fair, in the sense that the clues are there, when you flip back through. But I think TOW had more power and passion behind it. Still, I'd recommend this one; it's definitely near the top of the stack of suspense/mystery novels I've read. Tana French (another favorite author, of In the Woods) wrote the blurb for the back, and this book reads (to me) very much like hers ... the troubled, drinking Rob Macky with his mess of a love life is fairly close to Ray Lovell.